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.
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.
This week I visited the British Museum in London to take a look at their exhibition ‘Celts: Art and Identity’. Having studied many of the artefacts that were on display, it was always going to be a real treat for me. I arrived in great anticipation: I was finally going to see the Gundestrup cauldron, The Snettisham Torc and the many other fabulous treasures I had only so far seen in photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed in this respect. The objects themselves are well worth a visit. Sadly, the interpretation of Celtic identity left me feeling rather frustrated.
I originally started this blog to discuss Celtic myths, to open them to deeper readings, to help others appreciate them as much as possible. But for once I’m going to try and dispel a myth, in particular the myth that lies at the heart of this otherwise amazing exhibition.
The narrative created by the curators was based on the idea that over the millennia Celtic identity has been very ‘fluid’, and this word crept up consistently throughout the presentations. From Classical references to exotic northern tribes to a style of modern art, the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have been used for many different things and in many different ways, making them terms that are apparently ‘fluid’ and quite nebulous. As a result, the exhibition claimed that the “concept of a fluid Celtic identity” was a “powerful political tool”, the suggestion being that it simply served a superficial nationalism and in reality didn’t have much validity as a description of a historical people. What the curators failed to grasp was that the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have regularly been used to mean very different things, but usually with no regard to what the Celts themselves have to say on the subject.
Regardless of its apparent instability, the term ‘Celtic’ has been used in a remarkably consistent way at crucial points in time. The ancient Greeks used it to describe a particular group of people. Then, many centuries later, the Welsh scholar Edward Lhuyd (1660 -1709) used it to refer to the descendants of these same people. So it was used as a name for the same group of people in the first millennia BC and then again two millennia later. Nothing fuzzy or mysterious there. After Edward Lhuyd, ‘Celtic’ was used to designate a language group and resulted in the idea of the Celtic nations, those folks who were on the same branch of the Indo-European languages family tree. None of this is contentious. ‘Celtic’ is still used as the name for the same people the early Greeks were talking about.
It’s true that the Celts for most of their history didn’t call themselves Celts. But neither did the Germanic peoples necessarily call themselves Germanic; that doesn’t lead us to make claims about the ‘fluid’ nature of the English identity. Far from being so nebulous, the Celtic speaking nations have preserved historical identities that are so far some of the oldest in Europe. The apparent instability of the term ‘Celtic’ in an English context doesn’t mean that what it refers to is itself unstable. Celts exist independently of whether the English language can fully grasp them or not. The Welsh have always known that they are descendants of the early Britons, who were themselves descendants of the people the Greeks called the Celts. Again, this isn’t contentious. The Welsh identity is rooted in a very old idea that has remained coherent for a very long time. There is nothing ambiguous or ‘fluid’ about it. Yes, Celtic identity has changed, but it must be asked: relative to what is Celtic identity ‘fluid’? Relative to English identity? Relative to Germanic identity? Are these in any way less fluid?
The confused thinking of the curators was seen at it’s worst in their giving so much attention to the Celtic ‘Revival’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The assumption was that this strand of mainly English culture was a reflection of Celtic culture. This is a bit like claiming that Disney’s Sword in the Stone is an accurate retelling of the Welsh myth of Arthur. They are related, one is obviously rooted in the other, but neither are they the same. Disney’s film is a filtered, simplified version of the myth adapted for the modern Anglo-American audience, whereas the early Welsh texts preserve the original cultural phenomena. The Celtic Revival is just the same. The actual Celtic culture of the time was alive and well in the towns, villages and farmsteads of Celtic speaking communities, but was quite different to what the English speaking bourgeois assumed it to be. At the time, the Celtic Revival served to confirm an English stereotype, and did very little to preserve what remained of the Manx and Cornish languages, or reverse the steep decline of Welsh, Irish, Scotts Gaelic and Bretton. The exhibition is simply perpetuating this same ignorance.
Whereas the quasi-pagan fetishes of English Romantics were given a place of honour at the exhibition, very little space was given to the actual history of the Celtic nations after the Roman occupation. There was no hint of how remarkably coherent the Celtic cultures were throughout the medieval period, and how many early, pre-Christian elements were preserved by the medieval Celtic tradition. In contrast, the modern Celtic Revival was sighted as proof that modern Celtic identity was a fluid and unsteady phenomena, indeed nothing more than a romantic reinvention of the past. Which it was, but one that took place almost totally within an English context! In this respect, the exhibition did more to reaffirm an English attitude than it did to actually reveal Celtic cultures in an English setting, something that’s clearly still desperately needed.
The ancient Celtic art on display at the museum is stunning, but the exhibition itself is strung together with the same nonsense that has caused so much confusion between the English and their closest neighbours over the centuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of visitors came away thinking that bards and eisteddfodau were invented by Welsh Victorian romantics, or that the Anglo-Saxons simply ‘emerged in Britain’ (I assume they popped out of a hole in Kent), or that the Celts were dreamed up by renaissance scholars. The English curators’ unconscious attitude to their Indo-European cousins is akin to how many old people are treated these days: their memories are unreliable, they’ve lost a few marbles, and because they can’t be trusted we’ve confiscated the family silver.
What the curators failed to acknowledge is that those of us still living in Celtic cultures are quite capable of defining our own national identities, diolch yn fawr iawn. The Celts are not a senile culture of self-deluding romantics, we are alive and well and doing things in the world right now. Let us speak for ourselves, we may then believe that the museum is actually British in the full sense of the word.
Tonight is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Wales, and is an ysbrydnos, or ‘spirit night’ when the dead walk abroad under the starry skies. Halloween is the most recent tradition associated with this night, known at one time as ‘All Hallows Eve’, but there were traditions that came before it, such as the old Celtic festivities of harvest time. As with Samhain in Ireland, and indeed for many of the early peoples of Europe in general, this was the time when the ripened fruits and crops of late summer and autumn were celebrated as the abundant wealth of the land. Alongside such celebration there would have naturally been a time of reflection, particularly as this fulfilment of life’s fruition also marks the moment when the seasons turn and all growing life prepares itself to pass through the death of winter. This is the natural time to acknowledge mortality and consider what may come after the cold season.
Its probably for this reason that tonight is also the time when Gwyn ap Nudd hunts the land, when even the living can be taken up as souls to join in his eternal hunt, urging on the magical hounds as they chase through the darkness. This happened to one Ned Pugh, a famous Welsh fiddler whose mournful refrains were heard one Nos Galan Gaeaf transforming into the bright call of a huntsman’s bugle. Having entered a cave on that particular Halloween, he wandered deep into the belly of the earth from which he was never to return alive, but was instead taken up as chief huntsman to Gwyn ap Nudd, exchanging his fiddle for a horn.
A similar account could be given of Arawn from the First Branch of the Mabinogi. One of the very few allusions to Arawn in Welsh folklore concerns a ghost that was often heard declaiming Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn, a little verse that roughly translates as ‘Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the wait for Arawn.’ Was this the soul of someone long dead still waiting to be called by Arawn to join the otherworldly hunt? We shall never know for certain, but the other similarities between Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd would lead us to think so.
One of those similarities is the connection both these figures have to the instincts of physical desire, all those visceral and carnal urges that are fired by the hunt. Arawn was the one who tempted Pwyll with his beautiful wife, and Gwyn was a dangerously jealous lover of Creiddylad according to the medieval redactors of Culhwch ac Olwen. Gwyn was also responsible for tempting Collen with illusory food when the saint visited his phantom palace atop Glastonbury Tor. All of these temptations are echoed in an English version of the Magical Huntsman, a figure of superstition that Shakespeare found so intriguing he brought him to life, quite ridiculously, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.
“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Some time a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You’ve heard of such spirit; and well you know
The superstitious idol headed old
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for the truth.”
Despite the paucity of material concerning Herne, Shakespeare’s use of him in the play chimes with much of what we already know of Herne’s Welsh cousins, all three being hunters with supernatural qualities that are associated with fairies and the dead. Not unlike the spirits and sprites of many lands it appears that Herne can cause disease amongst cattle, and his moaning and clanking of chains is not unlike the restless behaviour of the souls of the dead.
But it may also be worthwhile considering Shakespeare’s actual use of Herne in the play. To cut a rather long story short, Falstaff, a lecherous wastrel with expensive tastes, attempts to seduce two married women by employing various deceptions. After realising his unsavoury intentions, both women take their revenge by tricking him into dressing up as Herne the Hunter for a promised night of pleasure. While waiting under the Windsor Oak sporting a pair of horns, Falstaff works himself up to a froth waiting for the two wanton wives to come and ravish him. But instead of his anticipated satisfaction he is accosted by a gang of children and adults in fairy costume whom he believes to be real spirits of the otherworld come to punish his mortal trespass (he obviously went for the trick, not the treat). These cruel fairies and sprites ridicule him and eventually put him in his place, all of which Falstaff accepts with rather good grace.
Lechery and excessive desires in general are a theme that Shakespeare explores throughout the play, with Falstaff being the embodiment of aristocratic excess. In contrast to Falstaff’s debauched appetites, through various mentions and allusions, Shakespeare subtly evokes the Order of the Garter, a royal order of nobles chosen by Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own patron. This order was supposedly one of high-minded restraint and discipline, as stated in their motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, which literally translates as ‘Evil be to him who thinks evil.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor could well have been written to feature in an event held at the royal estate of Windsor attended by Queen Elizabeth and her Order of the Garter. This would explain why Falstaff’s fate in the play appears to be a realisation of the order’s motto. His bad intentions result in a bad outcome where he finds himself dressed in the guise of none other than Herne the Hunter.
There are several hints in The Merry Wives of Windsor of folk traditions concerning the unfortunate figure of the cuckold. When a man’s wife had been unfaithful, some communities would ridicule the couple and in particular the husband by placing horns on his head, thus marking him out as a cuckold, a man who shares his wife with other men. In this way the wearing of horns was associated with a lack of fidelity. But whereas these later traditions have the cuckold as a figure of derision, Shakespeare, in his own magical way, may well have been evoking a much older idea concerning the horned hunter.
There are several points of comparison between Shakespeare’s Herne and Arawn from the Mabinogi. Both figures are party to an exchange of places, Falstaff with Herne and Pwyll with Arawn, both mortals become the god and both gods are the magical huntsmen in their respective regions. Having taken on the external form of the god, both mortals come to meet the fairies of the otherworld, an experience that went better for Pwyll than it did for Falstaff. Pwyll showed restraint and self-control in the bed of Arawn’s fairy queen, where Falstaff was seen for the lecherous toff he was and punished by the ‘fairies.’ One succeeded in wearing the mantle of the otherworld, while the other didn’t. Pwyll was learning his lesson, as was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although in a markedly different way.
If this was Shakespeare’s understanding, and who could deny one of the greatest bards of the English language such an insight, this horned figure was far from the object of ridicule and derision that he appeared to be on the surface. Falstaff’s failure was to be deaf to what the Huntsman had to say about the sowing and reaping of one’s desires. Pwyll, on the other hand, was listening well, as his name suggests.
As one of the more important texts in the study of Welsh mythology, Culhwch and Olwen contains elements drawn from the ancient body of oral lore that the Welsh inherited from their Celtic ancestors. One such element is Arthur’s hunting of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth.
As early as the ninth century, this hunt was part of popular folklore, having found its way into the Mirabilia, the list of British wonders that was attached to the Historia Brittonum. The tale itself is very similar to others found in the Welsh and Irish traditions, another sign of its ancient roots. All of these variations involve magical boars or pigs and their journey through a landscape, usually being hunted or followed.
The Twrch Trwyth himself is a man transformed into the shape of a giant boar, a version of another common motif. Some of the better known transformations of humans into animals (and vice versa) are found in Irish myth, such as the transformations of Conaire’s bird-kin in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, and the hunting of Diarmaid’s foster brother in the form of a boar in Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinn. In Welsh myth we have the many animal transformations of the Fourth Branch, including Lleu’s transmigration when he becomes an eagle at the moment of death; in this branch we also find the animal transformations that were punishments for Gwydion, Gilfaethwy and Blodeuwedd. The transformations of Taliesin are another prominent example.
Common to many of these transformations is the theme of the journey of the soul. In the Fourth Branch, we could interpret the eagle as a symbol for Lleu’s soul; the young nobleman was found in this form atop an otherworldly oak tree by his uncle, Gwydion. This discovery is achieved after Gwydion follows a sow through the countryside to the in-between-place where Lleu is perched. This episode echoes the hunting of Twrch Trwyth in several ways, and they could be different symbolic interpretations of the same concept.
To draw out the symbolic connotations of both events, we first need to understand what’s going on in both tales. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen describes how Ysbaddaden the Chief of Giants, requires the young hero Culhwch to complete a series of impossible tasks before he can marry Ysbaddaden’s beautiful daughter, Olwen. Many of these tasks involve cutting and washing Ysbaddaden’s hair and beard; so tangled and matted is he that many strange and magical items are required to prepare the chief giant for his daughter’s wedding.
We can compare this with the very beginning of the tale, when Culhwch complains of his curse to his father:
‘My stepmother has sworn that I may never have a wife until I get Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr.’
‘It is easy for you to get that son,’ said his father to him. ‘Arthur is your cousin. Go to Arthur to have your hair trimmed, and ask him for that as your gift.’
After reaching Arthur’s court and accepting his cousin’s welcome, Culhwch makes his request:
‘I want to have my hair trimmed.’
‘You shall have that.’
Arthur took a golden comb, and shears with loops of silver, and combed his hair, and asked who he was.
Arthur said, ‘My heart warms towards you. I know you are of my blood. Tell me who you are.’
As Sioned Davies explains in her edition of the Mabinogion “the cutting of hair was a symbolic act by means of which a blood-relationship was recognised and accepted.” (note to p.180). It is in these terms that we should consider Ysbaddaden’s request to have his own hair and beard combed and cut.
The significance of this kind of kinship ritual may best be understood as an expression of matrilineality and the early concept of sovereignty. As well as Culhwch’s destiny that he may marry none but Olwen, according to the tale Ysbaddaden is also destined to die should his daughter ever be wed. One explanation for both these destinies is that the tale preserves an echo of an ancient practice where political power and wealth were transferred through the wedding dowry of a chieftain’s daughter. Such practices were known in many cultures across the ancient world, and are found in many mythologies including the Greek (see the above link to the Wikipedia article on matrilineality).
This is connected to another ancient idea that a land’s sovereignty, its inherent rights as an independent territory, is embodied in the figure of a woman, a goddess figure, and that her marriage confers those sovereign rights upon her new husband making him the sovereign chieftain. This also means that the new husband effectively takes the place of his bride’s father, the old chieftain, stripping him of those same rights. As the embodiment of the old male power, Ysbaddaden must necessarily die before Culhwch can take his place, claiming Ysbaddaden’s rights as the new chieftain. No wonder Ysbaddaden continuously refers to Culhwch as his ‘cursed, savage son-in-law’.
In light of this, Ysbaddaden’s request that his hair and beard be ritually combed and cut takes on a particular symbolic meaning. Arthur is the king of Britain, overlord of all regional chiefs, and Culhwch is formally acknowledged as a member of his family and court through the ritual combing and cutting of his hair. Should Culhwch and Olwen wed, as father of the bride Ysbaddaden would also become a member of this extended family and absorbed into the hierarchy of Arthur’s court. In these terms, when Ysbaddaden joins the same family through marriage he may well have to go through the same ritual of having his hair and beard combed and cut; this will also be the event of his death as the old chieftain.
Another basic theme that’s bound up with this is that of nobility: the Twrch Trwyth is a prince of noble birth incarnated as a magical boar; it’s his special scissors and comb that are ultimately used to carry out a ritual of ennoblement that also marks Ysbaddaden’s death, in turn the event of Culhwch’s ascension to sovereign power. The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is an essential step in Culhwch’s growth in nobility.
Here we find another aspect of the boar’s relationship to the young hero. Twrch Trwyth is a young nobleman incarnated as wild swine, and he is hunted for the benefit of another young nobleman whose incarnation is also deeply entwined with swine:
And from the hour [Culhwch’s mother] became pregnant she went mad, and did not go near any dwelling. When her time came, her senses returned to her. This happened in a place where a swineherd was tending a herd of pigs. And out of fear of the pigs the queen gave birth. And the swineherd took the boy until he came to court. And the boy was baptised, and was named Culhwch because he was found in a pig-run.
Culhwch’s name commemorates this association with swine, roughly translating as ‘pig-run’. Twrch Trwyth and Culhwch could be considered kindred spirits, young noblemen who’s natures are entwined with similar mythological animals. Yet there isn’t a perfect symmetry between the two either: boars and pigs are different kinds of swine. One is portrayed as wild and destructive whilst the other is domesticated and civil. Twrch Trwyth was the beast that laid waste to southern Ireland, while Culhwch is all nobility in pursuit of love.
But we shouldn’t automatically assign a negative value to the Twrch, particularly as aggression and violence weren’t frowned upon in medieval Welsh culture. Far from it, they were celebrated as the defining features of great and worthy heroes. The warrior ideology that’s personified in figures such as Arthur, Urien, Owain and others is one of the hall marks of aristocratic praise poetry. At times, the Welsh bards compared their warrior patrons with boars, and sometimes even the Twrch Trwyth himself was used as a praise-worthy comparison. In light of this it may be better to see both swine-heroes as complementary, rather than antagonistic. The Twrch, suffering the fate of hunted beasts and warriors alike, faces violence for the further the ennoblement of his more civil brother.
It’s wiser to consider Culhwch and the Twrch Trwyth as representing the same aristocratic values, with the former embodying the values of civility, love and sovereignty, and the latter war, martial prowess and wild violence. All of these values were ancient aspects of Welsh nobility, and in combination both Culhwch and the Twrch illustrate all of them through their actions. It’s also fitting in many ways that violence itself is finally sacrificed for the benefit of civility, the hunted animal nourishing the nobility that pursues it.
The early Arthurian myth of the Welsh, of which Culhwch and Olwen is one of the main examples, is preoccupied with the ideals of violence, civility and nobility, those very elements of Celtic culture that informed the later medieval concepts of chivalry. Culhwch’s quest in literal terms is to marry the woman he was destined to love, but in mythological terms it also describes his ritualised initiation into nobility. Conflating an initiation into nobility with the pursuit of love is clearly a winning strategy if the intention is to sell such high-minded ideals to your young people, particularly the boys. Coupled with this idea of nobility as love is the idea of the new replacing the old, and that the nobility of the past (whether that be personified in a brutish giant or a magic boar) can be reclaimed by new generations, especially in their pursuit of love as a road to sovereignty.
Pigs are connected to the theme of generational change and death elsewhere in Welsh myth, such as in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi where Gwydion follows a wandering sow to discover the transmigrated soul of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. In both tales, swine of some kind is pursued, and both pursuits focus on the transmigrated souls of noblemen. Lleu, having been struck by Gronw’s cursed spear, turns into an eagle at the moment of his death and flees. Twrch Trwyth was originally a prince turned into the giant boar as punishment by God. This Christian explanation on the Twrch’s fate suggests there is an older pagan belief behind the tale, one that medieval Christian culture found distasteful. There are plenty of other examples in Celtic myth of humans changing into animals and vice versa, suggesting it was a widespread belief before it was challenged by the Church.
Other elements of Culhwch and Olwen have clearly been Christianised in a similar way, for example the description of Gwyn ap Nudd, one of the heroes needed to hunt the Twrch:
The Twrch Trwyth cannot be hunted without Gwyn ap Nudd within whom God placed the nature of Annwfn’s demons so as not to bring the present world to ruin.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this is at odds with how Annwfn is described in other Welsh medieval texts. In later folk tradition Gwyn is another variation of the pan-European Wild Huntsman, responsible for hunting the souls of the dead at Halloween. His role as a Welsh psychopomp and guide to the Celtic paradise would have made him an obvious target of Church censorship.
Regardless, the Twrch is in many ways another soul pursued by Gwyn ap Nudd, and this gives us a few clues as to the symbolic undercurrents of the tale. The Twrch was once a human prince, and although not dead in the normal sense, he is certainly a creature of the otherworld. In many ways, both the Twrch and Lleu are in Annwfn at crucial points of their journey. As Gwydion sings Lleu (in eagle form) down through the tree, the englynion of his bardic enchantment suggest the tree is in the otherworld. In the case of the Twrch Trwyth, Welsh myth often associates Ireland with the otherworld and crossing the Irish Sea as passage to and from that magical place (see the Second Branchand Preiddeu Annwfn for comparison); in this sense, the Twrch symbolically emerges from Annwfn as he comes to shore at Porth Clais and returns to it as he escapes off the tip of Cornwall.
But what does this all mean? On a purely symbolic level, both Lleu and the Twrch are noblemen who have been transformed not only into animals, but into symbols of the warrior elite. In medieval Welsh bardic poetry, both boars and eagles are metaphors for brave and noble warriors. Also, transforming mortal men into such eternal symbols was one of the main functions of Welsh bardic poetry. In that respect, one possible interpretation is that these symbolic animals represent a heroic ideal that transcends the death of the individual. Countless generations of violent noblemen may die, but the essence of their nobility is preserved in the symbols of Welsh myth and poetry.
On the level of religious belief, both tales may well preserve pre-Christian ideas about reincarnation. In a simple sense it’s natural to see in boars, eagles, wolves and bulls those very qualities that have been so highly praised amongst warrior elites the world over. If an aggressive fighter was to reincarnate after his death, then why not as a fierce boar, his nature perpetuated in the next life? If the oak tree upon which Lleu is found is a symbolic conduit for the transmigration of the soul from human to animal and back again, then there may also be a suggestion that souls could survive death by incarnating as special animals. With the right magic, they could be coaxed back into human form, reincarnated once more just as Gwydion sings the eagle of Lleu’s soul down the different cosmic levels of the otherworldly oak tree.
On the symbolic level and on the level of belief, ensuring the continuity of a particular kind of ethos appears to be the most important thing. Nobility and martial skill is preserved for the future in both interpretations. This ties the tales all the closer to the Welsh court bards; it was their task to ensure the continuation of noble values beyond their own lifetimes and those of their aristocratic patrons.
Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid* (‘The Grammars of the Chief Bards’) are a family of texts found in various manuscripts from about the 14th to the 16th centuries, although its quite likely the basic material they contain is much older. They would have been used as teaching tools in the bardic schools and reference works for those wealthy enough to have copies made. At one time, much of this material would have been memorised and transmitted orally.
These bardic grammars contain, as one would imagine, the basic rules of Welsh grammar. They also contain long sequences of triads on poetic craft known as the trioedd cerdd. The bards were very fond of the three-fold form. We find it not only in the structure of prose tales, but in the oldest kinds of poetry – the three-line englyn remains one of the most popular types of stanza to this day. The story triads (edited by Rachel Bromwich in Trioedd Ynys Prydein) were once valued sources of knowledge in Welsh medieval culture.
The triads of poetic craft are a little window onto the life of the court bards. They reveal how a guild of poets taught and practiced their oral craft of poetry. As expected, we find the different aspects of performance to be very important to them. They also continue to be sound advice to anyone wishing to take up poetry, and the performance of poetry in particular. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:
Three things that make a poem strong:
depth of meaning, regularity of Welsh, and excellence of imagination.
Three things that make a poem weak:
vulgar imagination, shallow meaning, and a lack of Welsh.
Three things a poem likes:
clear declamation, skilful construction, and the authority of the bard.
Three things a poem does not like:
feeble declamation, vulgar imagination, and the dishonour of the bard.
Three things that make awen for a bard:
genius, and practice, and art.
Three things that impoverish a bard’s awen:
drunkenness, lustfulness, and criticism.
Three essentials for a bard:
liveliness of speech when declaiming a poem, and meditating upon poetic art to ensure it is not faulty, and the boldness of his answer to what he is asked.
Three things that make a bard consistent:
the telling of tales, and poetry, and the old poetry (hengerdd).
Three things that give honour to a bard:
dress, authority, and boldness.
Three things that cause a bard to be loved and praised:
generosity, making merry, and praising good men.
Three things that cause a bard to be hated:
miserliness, insipidness, and satirising good men.
* The standard edition is by G.J. Williams, Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid (UWP 1934). These are my translations.
Most versions of Taliesin’s tale (but not all) locate his birth from the sea on the coast of northern Ceredigion. Elffin finds him as an infant, washed up in a skin bag, caught in Gwyddno Garanhir’s fish weir. For example, an incomplete version of the tale recorded by Llywelyn Siôn, probably copied sometime before 1561, has this to say about the location of the fish weir:
Ag ynyr amser hwnnw i ddoedd kored i Wyddno Garanhir ar y traeth rwng Dyvi ag ystwyth geyr llaw i gastell i hvn ag yny gored honno i kaid gwerth kanpynt bob nos glamai.
And in that time Gwyddno Garanhir had a fish weir on the beach between [the rivers] Dyfi and Ystwyth beside his own castle, and in that fish weir was had a hundred pounds [of fish] every May eve.
Ag yn yr amser hwnnw yr oedd gored Wyddno yn y traeth rrwng Dyfi ag Aberystwyth garllaw ei gastell ehûn ag yn y goret honno y kaid kywerthyd kan punt bob nos kalan Mai.
And in that time Gwyddno’s fish weir was on the beach between Dyfi and Aberystwyth beside his own castle and in that fish weir [a catch] to the value of a hundred pounds was had every May eve.
Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin (UWP 1992), 135 (my translations).
Between Aberystwyth and the Dyfi, the only beach is to be found at Borth, a name derived from the much earlier Porth Wyddno, or ‘Gwyddno’s Port’:
In 2012, the sea breached the defences at Borth, causing much flooding. Soon after, the work of building new sea defences was undertaken on the beach. As always, the building contractors were obliged to have a team of archaeologists investigating anything of interest dug up during the course of their work.
Sometime in 2014, such a team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Roderick Bale from Lampeter University, did come across something of interest. In a recent email I received from Dr Bale, he said:
“What we found and recovered . . . was a closely spaced line (around 30cm between each) of radially split oak stakes (around 80 in total) and one non oak roundwood post. The line (in some places a double line) ran east west pretty much opposite the final house in Borth . . . . The posts continued seaward beyond the limit of the sea defence construction zone but had been buried by sand last time I was in Borth a couple of months ago.
Age and function is (as yet) uncertain though the stakes preserve tool marks made with a flat bladed metal axe and of the few I have looked at in detail are sourced from fairly slow grown oak trees. It could certainly be part of some kind of fish weir, the rest of which may be buried under sand or has been removed in the past. . . . the structure is similar to other [fish traps] found on the Welsh coast, . . . .”
Dr Bale intends to do more work on pieces of the fish weir that he recovered, so a date could be forthcoming soon.
Although the fish weir has been buried under the sand since the excavation, a few weeks back, while taking in the calm sea air, I noticed that some of the stakes had been uncovered by the tide. Seizing the opportunity I dashed home and grabbed my wife’s camera:
Is this the spot where Taliesin was symbolically born from the sea?
As I’ve described in earlier posts, the whole area surrounding Cors Fochno and the Dyfi estuary sounds with echoes of Taliesin’s myth. If Patrick Ford’s arguments in Ytsoria Taliesin (UWP 1992) are to be taken seriously, then the early hero Cynfelyn may have been Taliesin’s teacher and initiator. Cynfelyn, as is typical of some of these early figures, became a saint who’s church is only a few miles away inland at Llangynfelyn (see map above).
Myfi a fum yn y gwynfryn
yn llys Cynfelyn,
mewn cyff a gefyn
un dydd a blwyddyn; . . .
I was in the blessed hill in the court of Cynfelyn, in a shackle and chain for a year and a day; . . .
This may refer to Taliesin’s own initiation, bound and placed in a ‘blessed hill’ or mound (Bedd Taliesin?) at the court of Cynfelyn. Elsewhere in the same version of the tale Taliesin states:
y bardd ni’m gosdeco
gosdeg ni chaffo
oni êl mewn gortho,
dan raean a gro; . . .
the bard that fails to silence me [in a bardic contest]
will never have peace
unless he goes into a grave
under soil and shale; . . .
According to Ford, Taliesin is alluding here to how a bard must experience the same symbolic death before he is accepted into the bardic guild. This symbolic death may have been followed by a symbolic birth, perhaps marked in ritual on Borth beach at an ancient fish weir.
We shall never know if any of these theories add up to historical fact, but the clues scattered across this old landscape and amongst the pages of manuscript hint at the symbolic acts of the medieval Welsh bards.
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.
(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.
Pawb at Dewi was a poem composed by the prophet-poet Dafydd Llwyd, probably in 1485. When Henry Tudor was making his way through Wales gathering support and troops for his forthcoming battle with Richard III at Bosworth, he stopped off at Mathafarn Hall just outside of Machynlleth, specifically to visit Dafydd Llwyd. Dafydd Llwyd was a trained Welsh bard that practiced the ancient art of political prophecy, a genre of bardic poetry associated with the myth of the mab darogan, the son of prophecy.
Henry Tudor, needing the support of his relations amongst the Welsh nobility, knew that a proclamation of support by the famous Dafydd Llwyd would aid his cause. According to folk tradition, having spent the evening with Dafydd and his wife, Henry asked the bard straight out “So who do you think will win the battle at Bosworth? Me or Richard?” Being caught unawares, Dafydd replied he would meditate upon the question that night and give Henry the answer next morning.
Later on that evening, with the young Henry and his companions tucked up in bed, Dafydd was pacing up and down his bedchamber pulling at his beard. His wife, trying to sleep, asked him “Dafydd, what’s wrong, come to bed and let us sleep!”, to which Dafydd replied “But what shall I tell him? He could be king in a few weeks time; I must get it right.” To which his wife replied “Just tell him he’s going to win. If he does, he’ll look favourably upon you. If he looses, well it doesn’t matter because he won’t be around to complain about it. Now come to bed!” So that’s what Dafydd told him and the rest, as they say, is history.
The poem we’re performing in the video bellow was probably composed by Dafydd Llwyd to be declaimed before the Welsh troops just before going into battle at Bosworth. It’s a rousing call-and-response between the bard and the troops, stirring them to action and calling for the blessings of St David for those about to go to war. It’s led by Twm Morys, a well regarded chaired bard, and based on the research of Peter Greenhill (first on the left of the group) who also provided the research and interpretation for Paul Dooley‘s album of music from the ‘ap Huw’ harp manuscript.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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*Roland Barthes, trans. Howard / Lavers, Mythologies (Hill and Wang 2013), 217