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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.