The story of Rhiannon is found in the first and third branches of the Mabinogi. One of the most important books written on the subject is Rhiannon by W.J. Gruffydd, one of Wales’ most prominent poets and scholars of the 20th century. But why is his work so ingenious and contentious? This talk is the first in a series exploring this book in depth. Feel free to follow along.
The Goddess of Sovereignty is one of the most ancient archetypes found in the Celtic tradition. As well as embodying the abundance and prosperity of the land, she also has a strong connection to sacred wells, divine knowledge and horses. Figures such as Rhiannon and Epona both draw on this sovereignty archetype, and we find signs of her in the mythologies of other Indo-European cultures.
This free 7 part course explores the Sovereignty Goddess’ mythology as recorded in Celtic and Indo-European sources. Drawing on modern research and traditional lore, we will uncover the different strands that make up this ancient goddess’ story, one of the clearest expressions of the divine feminine in the Celtic tradition.
Each part of the course contains a video lecture of 20-30 minutes, extensive notes, illustrations and references, as well as links to further reading. Each part also includes different types of questions for you to answer, helping you to remember the key facts and developing your own understanding of this important deity in Celtic mythology.
You can follow this course at your own pace. It’s accompanied by series of emails to help you get the most out of it and give you additional information and sources.
A Vision of the Goddess: The Sovereignty Goddess plays an obvious role in medieval Irish literature, where she is an explicit embodiment of the land. In this first lecture we take a look at the 9th century story Baile in Scáil, where Conn, the High King of Ireland, travels to the otherworld to meet the Sovereignty.
The Goddess Transformed: In some tales the Sovereignty of Ireland transforms from the Cailleach-like hag into a beautiful maiden. This transformation appears to be a crucial part of the goddess’ myth, and in this lecture we discuss what this transformation could mean.
Goddess of the Well: Holy wells and springs are an ancient feature of the Celtic landscape, and play a part not only in Christian pilgrimage but also in the more ancient Celtic mythology of Ireland and Wales. In this lecture we look at the myth of the sacred well and consider why the goddess cares for it.
Rhiannon: Goddess or Mortal?: Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the Sovereignty Goddess is Rhiannon from The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. But her story isn’t simply that of a goddess; it also reveals the very mortal aspects of this ancient archetype. The lived experience of women appears to be part of this core myth.
Ancient Celtic Queens: Cartimandua and Boudica are two of the most famous Celtic queens mentioned by classical authors. They were both strong leaders of 1st century Britain, whose spiritual power appears to have been drawn from the Sovereignty Goddess’ of their native tradition.
Epona’s Children: Epona was one of the most popular goddess’ of Celtic Europe, and perhaps the best example of a horse goddess from the Roman period. Scholars have long seen her as a precursor to figures such as Rhiannon from Wales and Macha from Ireland; but why exactly? Why are these characters her spiritual children?
The Ancient Horse Goddess: Before Rhiannon, Macha and even Epona, there was Madhavi from the Vedic tradition of Northern India. As one of the oldest examples of a horse goddess and sovereignty goddess from the Indo-European tradition, Madhavi can tell us great deal about the evolution of this most ancient archetype, the Goddess of Sovereignty.
Clearly, witchcraft — as part of the broader set of beliefs we call paganism — was an aspect of a nature religion in the folk culture of medieval Wales. But sometimes we need to be a bit careful with our terms . . .
A recording of the first day of the Mabinogi Challenge. Over the course of 5 days we’re working through a simple process by which you can begin to interpret and understand a short folk-tale from the Mabinogi tradition.
0:00 The Welsh storytelling tradition.
17:06 The Story of Llyn Barfog.
40:45 Challenge questions.
. . . or there’s a podcast version if that’s easier:
The Welsh word mabinogi means something like ‘tales of youthful exploits’, or perhaps even ‘tales for the youth’. Either way, even though it’s not a common word, it was the name given to the Welsh prose classic The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It has long been acknowledged that The Mabinogi, first written down around 900 years ago, contain Celtic myths that have their roots in the ancient past of Iron Age Europe. So we could say mabinogi also means something like ‘traditional tale’, or ‘ancient lore’.
In recent decades, several new English translations of The Four Branches have been published, making these old Welsh stories available to a much broader, English-speaking audience. Celtic myths are not difficult to find in this digital age. But understanding what these myths mean isn’t necessarily that straight forward. Never mind the difference in language, we live in very different times to those in which these ancient tales emerged, and whereas we often read them as we would a novel, it’s very likely that in the past they were considered to be far more symbolic and allegorical. So can we really understand them? Or are we too far removed, not only in time but in culture?
I don’t think we are so very different from our ancestors. We still breathe the same air, we still drink the same water and we still experience the same passions, fears, hopes and grievances. Our basic nature has remained unchanged for millennia, and it is that same nature that these myths are talking about: they tell the same human story we still live today.
What I have come to appreciate is that with a little grounding in study, given a little time to ponder and meditate, anyone can begin to interpret Celtic myths and find something valuable in them, be that a deeper meaning, a connection to the past or simply a profound appreciation of Celtic storytelling.
If you find yourself drawn to the Celtic arts, be that story or music or poetry, then I invite you to consider that there is far more to the myths of the Celtic nations than a collection of old stories. Some of these stories were crafted by exceptional storytellers, intentionally created to be used as cyfarwyddyd, an old Welsh word that not only means ‘story’, but also ‘lore’, ‘direction’ and ‘guidance’.
As the Greek philosopher Sallustius put it . .
To conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.
If this tells us anything, it is that the people of ancient Europe were very aware of the power of myth.
I should stress that using myths to convey complex truths is by no means unique to the Celts. We find this same tendency all over the world, from Aesops fables and the Christian Bible to the folk tales and myths of the Americas, Africa, India and China. Countless traditions have found storytelling to be one of the most powerful ways of helping people understand themselves and the world they live in. And forgive me if I am a little biased, but the Celtic peoples had their own unique artistry when it came to creating such tales.
But if The Four Branches of the Mabinogi were meant to be understood as more than just tales of magic and wonder, why is it not so easy for us modern readers to tune into this deeper layer of meaning? Why can it be so difficult to understand these stories sometimes? Well, in my opinion, what’s often missing is simply the opportunity to consider and discuss what they could mean with otherpeople. I know that may sound very simplistic, but it’s actually an important part of oral storytelling that’s often missing from our modern reading culture.
Oral storytelling traditions don’t begin and end with a quiet audience. Storytelling is a far more communal affair than reading alone, and likewise the tales have a more communal life where there’s more opportunity for discussion, comparison and debate, never mind private contemplation. Think of what can happen after visiting the cinema or the theatre: we often fall into conversation about what we’ve just seen. Consider that happening on a far more regular basis. Modern reading is often a solitary act, but the ancient tradition of sharing stories was, by its very nature, far more communal and participatory.
When we come together and pay attention to the stories, when we talk through our own responses and compare them with those of others, we begin to build a picture made of many perspectives that can inspire new understanding and insight. That’s why this 5 day challenge focuses on group discussion. It may not be possible to perfectly emulate the conditions of storytelling traditions from the distant past, but we can create our own simple versions of them today.
Join me for this free Mabinogi challenge. Over the course of 5 days I will show you a simple process by which you can begin to interpret and understand a short folk-tale from the Mabinogi tradition.
By the end of the 5 days you will
have intimate knowledge and understanding of a traditional Welsh folktale.
know how to begin interpreting not only Celtic myths, but stories from all over the world.
appreciate the legacy of oral storytelling in Celtic cultures.
I don’t pretend to be able to make you wise (I’m still working on that one myself!), but I can introduce you to a wonderfully engaging and rich tradition of stories.
The Mabinogi Challenge is a 5 day challenge that begins Sunday, March 6th, 2022 and ends Thursday 10th, 2022.
Sunday 6th, 1 hour live Zoom call at 8:00pm GMT / 3:00pm EST / 12:00pm PST: In this first session I’ll tell you the tale we’ll be working with, as well as help you understand all of its moving parts.
Tuesday 8th, 20 minute Facebook live at 8:00pm GMT / 3:00pm EST / 12:00pm PST: In this quick session I’ll be talking about some aspects of the story and asking you some questions to consider over the following day.
Wednesday 9th, 20 minute Facebook live at 8:00pm GMT / 3:00pm EST / 12:00pm PST: Another short session to get you thinking about some of the symbols in the story and what they could mean.
Thursday 10th, 1 hour live Zoom call at 8:00pm GMT / 3:00pm EST / 12:00pm PST: In this last session we’ll be coming together to look at how everybody’s responded to the story, to see what insights you’ve had and answer any final questions.
This challenge is totally free, all you need do is put your first name and email address in the boxes below and click ‘sign up’.
I’ll email you links to the live sessions as they come up.
In this second video on Canu Llywarch Hen, the 9th century Welsh poems that tell the story of Llywarch the Old and his 24 sons, we talk through Llywarch’s lament for his son, the fallen warrior Gwên. This second poem confirm’s much of what was suggested in the previous episode, especially the notion that the heroic ideal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Canu Llywarch Hen, the sequence of 9th century Welsh poems about the tragedy of Llywarch the Old and his 24 sons, is one of the most important works in Welsh literature. But far from joining in with the pomp and pageantry of traditional praise poetry, instead it reveals a darker side of the hero myth so beloved by the nobility.
It’s not too late to join in with the live course, Ystoria Taliesin that began last night. All of the sessions are recorded and available with the subscription. Don’t forget you can choose your own monthly subscription anywhere from £25 up to £75. This includes all other courses on the site.
In this second video on Canu Heledd (‘The Song of Heledd’) we look at what could have led to such a tragedy. There are suggestions in the poems that Heledd considers herself to be to blame for the death of her brother and the fall of his territory.
If you’re intending to follow the Ystoria Taliesin course but need an in-depth understanding of the Taliesin myth, I’d suggest subscribing now and following The Taliesin Tradition before we begin on February 6th. It’s not a requirement, but it will give you lots of background on the myth and how it has developed.
All of the courses are now accessible with the new flexible subscription, where you can choose your own monthly payment.
Canu Heledd (‘The Song of Heledd’) is a sequence of 9th century Welsh poems commemorating the loss of territory to Saxons when they invaded the kingdom of Powys. The main character in these dramatic verses is Heledd, sister of Cynddylan, one of the noblemen who died defending against the attack. But Heledd is more than a voice of grief in the poetry, she also embodies the land of Powys itself.
Who wrote The Four Branches of the Mabinogi? That’s a question numerous Celtic scholars have attempted to answer over the years, but none have been able to provide definitive proof to support their claims. This lack of evidence has prompted others to venture beyond the usual suspects of monks and clerics and instead consider more uncommon candidates such as Gwenllian, warrior princess of Wales . . .