Celts from the West

I’ve been asked a few times in the last month or so about the recent turn (or revolution?) in the academic understanding of Celtic history. At the centre of this new perspective is Prof. Barry Cunliffe (with help from John Koch in Aberystwyth). This is the best (most thorough) video presentation I’ve found. Enjoy:

His recent book, Britain Begins, is also totally fascinating (although maybe go see if your local bookstore has it before opting for Amazon.)


What is mythology?

Aberlemno Pictish Stone. Symbols are the bedrock of human culture.

What is a myth? That’s a question that rarely stays answered for long. In my own experience, I’ve rarely been able to settle on a single definition of myth that covers all of its many uses. The situation today is more complicated because myth was redefined in some scholarly circles during the 20th century, such as in the work of the French philosopher Roland Barthes.

The modern thinking about myths describes how they grow out of our instinctive ability to use symbols, the bedrock of human culture. A marriage ceremony symbolises the promise of fidelity; a religious image symbolises a whole body of beliefs and morals; wearing shiny pieces of cut stone and worked metal symbolises wealth and status; certain letters before a name symbolise gender, relationship or expertise, and so on and so on.

Myths evoked in literature are essentially a symbolic use of narrative. For example, in many traditional European stories, the hero is often a symbol for a certain code of conduct: men should be brave, chivalrous, defend the weak and put personal honour before all else. This is never explicitly spelled out in the tale, but symbolically suggested by the actions of the hero.

Such tales present these values as part of the natural order of things: there is a perfect type of man; dragons are always bad and should be killed; princesses are always weak and need rescuing; fighting is good and should be done well, etc, etc. This is just the way of things, to be taken for granted like the rising of the sun. These make up a myth, in this case the medieval myth of the knight in shining armour.

In the modern definition, myths aren’t stories. They’re certainly closely related, but only in as much as myths use stories. As with the male hero being a symbol for a code of conduct, myth is what lies below the surface of a narrative. It’s a deeper meaning that, if we accept without question the values it expresses, can influence our attitudes without us even realising it. That is essentially the mechanism by which religion, advertising and propaganda work.

But of course, myths can also become outdated. As culture evolves, older myths are inevitably challenged and discarded. Certain myths are considered good or bad or anything in between depending on who you’re talking to. One thing is certain, myths can unify as much as divide.

We rarely question how such myths are created nor how they’re used, and experiencing myth is rarely considered a conscious act. We often think of myth as something that happens to us, stories that are told to us, not something we can do ourselves. That’s mainly because we’ve come to think of myth as something outside of ourselves, old stories created in ages long past.

But we can also try to approach a myth consciously, paying attention to how it’s evoked, what kind of assumptions are contained within it. We have a choice, we can either be used by myths — become an unconscious conduit through which they are spread — or we can try and see them for what they are. In this way we begin to interpret the, to hold them to the light and try to see their shape.

The more we seek to interpret myths, the quicker we discover that not all stories are worthy of our attention. Some stories just aren’t intentionally symbolic, while others strive to be. This focus on symbolic meaning is, after all what identifies mythic stories. It’s for this reason we can say that in reality, a myth only ever arises out of an audience’s engagement with a story. Perhaps then a storyteller’s job is to encourage that process, not hinder it.

A good example of mythic storytelling is The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. In them we can see the mechanics of symbolic narrative and how myth can work. But it must be stressed at the outset that there is no real certainty any author can successfully evoke a mythic response in an audience, fundamentally because myth is something that happens within the audience’s experience, not within a text. The only thing an author can do is try their best to understand the audience they wish to create for, and seek to evoke those myths that resonate with them.

For example, let’s assume an audience we wish to write for is interested in what we might call deep ecology. On a mundane level they are environmentally aware, support sustainability and respect nature. On a deeper level they believe that human consciousness should, in a perfect world, be deeply embedded in nature. Within this particular sub-culture, these values make up a myth often referred to simply as The Land.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, (1836).

The Land is a myth that draws on some very old cultural strands, often pagan in orientation, and mostly delivered to our age through 19th century Romanticism. Today, this myth expresses a yearning for connection with something felt to be lost in modern culture: a nativeness, a wildness, an honouring of an ancient human perspective that sees itself as part of Sublime Nature, not above or separate from it. The Land often has an Eden-like quality. It’s the Promised Land we modern humans are struggling to return to.

But to return implies some kind of redemption, and in the myth of The Land, that redemption begins with an acknowledgment of the problem: humanity has apparently divorced itself from what is best described as natural consciousness. Our consumption-driven culture is self-destructive, creating a society that divorces us from our life-supporting environment, leaving our natural souls to wither in the light of a sterile, technological glare. Modern, main-stream consumer culture (which has the same traits all over the planet, East and West) drives us to reject our original, natural humanity.

In that sense, The Land expresses an existential crisis, one reinforced by the environmental realities of the modern era. If climate change research shows us anything, we are fast approaching an ecological disaster that threatens life as we know it. In the myth of The Land, this ecological disaster is a symptom of our disconnection from the spiritual ground of our being, the Living Earth. It’s a myth that encompasses not only a crisis in individual, but also in collective existence.

So having defined it, how could an author evoke it?

Myths tend to express absolute values. It’s the coherence of those values that can give myth its power, its ability to shape our world-view, at least in those moments when we’re immersed in a tale. 

Two such absolute values in The Four Branches are honour and her reflection, shame: both motivate important events, ultimately shaping the actions of the characters. In the imagined world of the tales, such values are as hard and pervasive as any natural law.

Honour and shame compel different responses in The Four Branches: compassion in Rhiannon as she acknowledges her midwives’ shame; grief in Branwen for the tragic war that arose out of her shaming and subsequent attempts to restore her to honour. Likewise, over-sensitivity to honour and shame causes destructive fury in Efnysien, and a lack of sensitivity to the very same values causes a callous folly in Gwydion. These are all very varied responses to the universal constants of honour and shame.

Lady Godiva by John Collier (1897), another medieval female embodiment of honour and shame.

If we take The Four Branches as our model, our new tale would be founded upon similar absolute values. These absolutes will provide the true north of the mythic landscape, the direction by which all other directions are known. Absolutes point the way along the pilgrims path that characters either progress upon or are turned away from.

Fundamentally, these absolutes rest upon a sense of the sacred. They can only be absolute if they are treated as sacrosanct within the imagined world of the tale. They can never truly be violated or undermined, only deferred or delayed. They exert a pull upon all who live in the tale’s universe, pervading the common understanding of the characters, their intuitions and behaviour.

Even though such absolutes are fundamentally impersonal in nature, they affect the personal lives of good and bad alike. Just as Lady Justice is blind, these apparent ‘natural laws’ don’t see personal circumstance, they simply operate without discrimination. They are presented as perpetually imminent, woven into the fabric of a tale’s world, yet almost exclusively expressed through individual lives. 

In this way absolutes can define a sacred direction in symbolic narrative, and those absolutes will vary depending on what myth the author wishes to evoke. 

Eryri, Gwynedd

To consider this quality of myth in terms of The Land, one clear path to an absolute, sacred and transcendent value is found in the Earth. As the source and container of our lives and our deaths, the cradle and grave of our evolution as a species, the Earth is perhaps an Absolute amongst human absolutes.

In a very physical sense, all that we are as a species is derived from our interaction with the planet’s diverse environments. Even our culture, our non-physical realm of meaning, evolved in response to the same drives that shaped our bodies. To this day, dance is a frequent medium for courtship, art a re-visualising of the sensual world, story a person’s journey through time.

The implication is that the Earth is not only a basis for biological life but is one of the main roots from which human meaning grows. Human culture derives some of its core meanings directly from the Earth. How could it not? The fact that we are soil-coloured to the core, even in how we create meaning, reveals us to be little more than another apple on the Great Tree. 

Of course, the metaphor breaks down when we consider our very modern ability as a species to either totally invigorate or annihilate all life on Earth. Apples tend not to wield such vast powers of life and death. There is absolutely no humanity without Earth, but likewise humanity now has power over the absolute destruction or survival of life as we know it. At least, that’s what the climate crisis suggests and all-out nuclear war promises. 

And here the absolute value of the Earth is accompanied by two other diamond-hard absolutes, perhaps the most powerful concerns of the modern age, Survival and Destruction. Think of any of the doomsday movies that have been released in recent decades: they all play on this very human power. This is the dark side of the myth of The Land, the essential fear of apocalypse, an ancient anxiety re-born in the Anthropocene.

But in the modern myth of The Land, Destruction takes on a whole new meaning. In older mythic contexts, Destruction was sometimes considered a transformer, a necessary part of the life-death cycle. But this new type of Destruction is not only the death of all life on Earth, but a total break in the natural cycle: no new life can achieved after the transformation of this death.

If ever a human condition needed sanctifying through myth and symbolic narrative, then it would be this one. It is a new Destruction that gives no quarter, that lets out no light. Many have already concluded that Death is a teacher of wisdom, but this new Destruction will not ever result in anything so beautiful.

Maya Gonzalez, Sunday Afternoon 1994.

The myth of The Land requires us to invite this new Destruction in, to let it cause fault lines in the geography of the tale, to let it shape the narrative as the total antithesis of Survival. How can we hold this directionless direction, grown from a centre that cannot hold? The Earth can no longer contain this type of death as a part of its evolutionary cycles, and so it is a solely human problem, requiring us to take responsible for our greater body, for the Tree of all Life. If the myth of The Land is to express hope, then it must give birth to tales about that moment of human maturing. 

The 5th Branch of the Mabinogi

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 16.34.38
illustration by Valeriane Leblond

Here’s a couple of talks I gave at the brilliant Aberystwyth Storytelling Festival. Such a rare opportunity to enjoy the company of professional storytellers, artists, musicians and fully-engaged audiences. I really couldn’t have managed to pull off such mad scheme anywhere else.

New Cloth From Old Thread Crowd sourcing The Fifth Branch with festival participants:

The Fifth Branch Guessing at what a fifth branch could be by following the recurring patterns and themes of the original four branches:

The bard as druid

Medieval Welsh bards had a taste for the theatrical. Like many men of high standing they had an appreciation of the power of drama. In the 12th century, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr composed a poem blessing the Lord Rhys’ court gates, probably declaimed in a pounding voice as the old bard swished into the hall followed by a proud troop of young apprentices. In the praise poetry of many a medieval Welsh bard there is the same sense of occasion, of grandeur and majesty.

Court bards such as Cynddelw would have worked hard not only to evoke the traditional authority of their ancient guild, but also to conjure a particular mystique. They would have refined the ability to create a sense of dignity, of continued tradition and ancient power. To this end, their poetry was laden with references to the works of esteemed past masters such as Taliesin and Aneirin. In a theatrical sense they were creating a dramatic persona based on the legendary figures of these long dead bardic forefathers, attempting to embody the archetypal wiseman.

But it wasn’t just the myth of the ancient bard that Cynddelw and his fellow poets were trying to evoke. It’s a little known fact that 12th century Welsh court bards also publicly portrayed themselves as derwyddon, as druids. Cynddelw could have actually traced his bardic lineage through Taliesin back to the ancient priest class of the earlier Britons, but that actual historical lineage wasn’t as important as the idea of it. Just as Cynddelw would have conjured the mystique of his bardic ancestors in performance, so he also conjured the basic notion of an ancient priest class of which he was the current embodiment.

In many ways this testifies to the central realisation of medieval Welsh bardic culture: the idea of the past is far more powerful than it’s historical reality. Time and again in prose tales and bardic poetry, the idea of an Arthur or a Taliesin is far more potent than the historical figures themselves.In much the same way, to a medieval Welsh bard such as Cynddelw, the idea of a druid was of more immediate value than any actual historical connection. Publicly claiming membership of an ancient order of wisemen has always had its perks.

Merlin, Robert De Boron, 13th cent.
Merlin, Robert De Boron, 13th cent.

What’s becoming clearer today is the long-term effect of bards such as Cynddelw mythologising themselves, through the theatre of court ceremony turning themselves into symbolic figures that represented profound wisdom and magical enlightenment. The myth of the archetypal wiseman promoted by the Welsh bardic guilds long outlived the bards themselves. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth borrowed the Welsh Myrddin to create the now internationally famous Merlin, many people have been captivated by this same mythology.

Time and again in subsequent centuries, both Welsh and English antiquarians found themselves enchanted by the same ethereal figure of the priest-poet so elegantly conjured in medieval Welsh poetry. The romantic figure of the ancient bard, harp in hand, beard blowing in the wind, became one of the most enduring caricatures of 18th and 19th century British culture.

The Bard 1778 Benjamin West 1738-1820 Purchased 1974 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01900
Benjamin West, The Bard, 1778

So successful was Taliesin, Aneirin and their descendants at mythologising themselves that the shadows they cast down the halls of history were felt by generations centuries later, amongst them generations of English men and women who couldn’t even speak the Welsh tongue. The Welsh bardic tradition was fascinating because of the effect of antiquity it conjured, not necessarily because of its historical lineage back to the druids. That, in essence, was the glamour the Welsh bards so successfully cast upon British culture, and its effects can still be felt to this day.

The 18th and 19th century obsession with all things druidical was on occasion fed by translations of medieval Welsh bardic poetry, more often than not presented as ‘the real’ mystic knowledge of the ancient druids. One Welsh antiquarian of the 19th century who took the opportunity to make such grandiose claims was the Rev. Edward Davies in his Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809). Half a century later, the scholar W.F. Skene said of his work “It would probably be difficult to find a stranger specimen of perverted ingenuity and misplaced learning than is contained in [Davies’] work . . .” It wasn’t so much the standard of translation that provoked the ire of academics, but the fantastical theories put forward about the poems themselves.

From "The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands" by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith, 1815
From “The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands” by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith, 1815

That’s not to say that there is nothing at all of interest in these old texts regarding the beliefs and philosophies of the medieval bardic guilds, nor how such things may relate to the earlier culture of the Druids. Ironically, some of the poems badly mangled by early translators such as the Rev. Edward Davies have in recent years been re-edited, the new editions providing hints and clues of the actual mysticism of the Welsh bardic tradition. The magic they practiced was, perhaps unsurprisingly, akin to the sacred theatre of the Greeks and all other such cultures that find power and transformation in public performance. In many ways, their greatest secret was the practice of mythology, the conscious use of myth and symbol to project their ideals onto present and future generations. The enduring figure of the Welsh wiseman, most popularly seen these days in the fictional characters of Merlin and Taliesin, is proof enough of their mastery of that craft.

Ancient Order of Druids, 19th cent.
Ancient Order of Druids, 19th cent.

In the early days of Celtic studies, much confusion was created by early translators being unaware of the theatrical aspect of bardic culture, of how intentionally the bards controlled and projected their chosen mythology. As a result, many succumbed to the glamour of bardic mystique, and were thereby blinded to how skilfully that mystique had been conjured. Captivated by the magic trick, they failed to appreciate the skilful sleight of hand. Thankfully, the resulting tangle of assumption, fact and fantasy slowly began to unravel in the 20th century. John Morris-Jones arrived on the scene to prune back some of the more wacky branches that had grown on the tree of understanding. And that pruning was essential, because without it, we would still be looking for the wood in the trees.

One of the majour stepping stones towards dispelling the glamour of the medieval bards was the publication of The Four Ancient Books of Wales by W.F. Skene in 1868 (in fact a significant portion of the translating work was carried out by D. Silvan Evans, with Skene taking responsibility for the final publication). Although by now considered too unreliable as a text for study, it was one of the more important attempts to clear away the brush and take an objective look at the texts. The countless errors that Skene and Silvan Evans’ translation contains can mostly be put down to the immaturity of the academic tradition they worked in, not necessarily a lack of diligence. The lack of decent reference works may have hindered them, but The Four Ancient Books opened the way for later scholars, Ifor Williams chief amongst them, to present editions that have so far stood the test of time.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

Throughout my time at university, I had never been satisfied by general interpretations of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Most scholars have seemed reluctant to view the tales as myths even. Most of the modern research published, no matter how useful, seems to say more about current academic values than it does about the text itself.

As a result, a few years back I began looking at what people in the past thought of their great narratives, their traditional tales and myths. What I discovered was that even as far back as the Roman Empire, myths were not only sacred tales about gods, but were regarded as multi-layered and symbolic texts that needed to be interpreted if they were to be understood. This is how it was put by the 4th century Greek philosopher Sallustius:


. . . to wish to teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.

In keeping with his Classical training, Sallustius believed the hidden truths of myth were revealed through what he called ‘philosophy’, a way of perceiving underlying patterns, concepts and themes not immediately apparent in the surface narrative of a tale. Sallustius is implying the symbolic philosophies preserved in myth could make the incomprehensible universe meaningful, and give adepts a clear place in the vast order of things.

Alongside this early appreciation of the symbolic nature of myth was a similar tradition that saw storytelling as a way of teaching moral truths. The Old Testament for example contains several allegories, as do other Christian texts. But the allegory, or instructive symbolic tale, wasn’t a Christian invention. It’s likely to have been a common element of many oral traditions, known throughout the ancient world as a tool for teaching young minds how to think, how to look beyond surface details to the heart of a tale’s meaning.

An Allegory of Truth and Time by Annibale Carracci c. 1585

The Four Branches share some similarities with allegories. For example, in some medieval allegories we find characters that personify certain human traits, such as Folly or Virtue. Similarly, in The Four Branches the name of the very first character, Pwyll, is also the Welsh word for the human qualities of discernment, deliberation, wisdom, caution and  care. A more modern equivalent term may be mindfulness. There are also peculiar, symbolic events that are described without explanation, the suggestion being that they contain what Pwyll himself calls ystyr hud, or ‘magical meaning’.

In an oral tradition such as the one that gave us The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, interpretation would likewise have been a natural response amongst audiences. There were no peer reviewed journals, no guides to linguistics or indexes of comparative literature. Very little was written down, and what was written was only available to a very few. Instead, medieval audiences would have interpreted the tales from within the context of their own native lore, that slowly evolving body of traditional knowledge that preserved very ancient ideas and attitudes.

But for us today, getting access to this wider body of oral lore is difficult. Our modern culture is undoubtedly far removed from that of our ancestors. All we have as proof of this older culture of oral lore is to be had in medieval writing, and within those pages the oral tradition could only sound as an echo. Yet by comparing these medieval texts with The Four Branches, we can begin to tease out the oral threads that connect them.

Having spent several years studying and comparing medieval tales, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of them contain different versions of the same basic set of ideas. But those ideas are never explicitly stated; as Sallustius describes, they remain hidden, intentionally esoteric. Guessing at those grand ideas, grasping for that unity of vision and meaning, can only ever be done with the imagination, as has always been the case.