The Welsh word mabinogi means something like ‘tales of youthful exploits’, or perhaps even ‘tales for the youth’. Either way, even though it’s not a common word, it was the name given to the Welsh prose classic The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It has long been acknowledged that The Mabinogi, first written down around 900 years ago, contain Celtic myths that have their roots in the ancient past of Iron Age Europe. So we could say mabinogi also means something like ‘traditional tale’, or ‘ancient lore’.
In recent decades, several new English translations of The Four Branches have been published, making these old Welsh stories available to a much broader, English-speaking audience. Celtic myths are not difficult to find in this digital age. But understanding what these myths mean isn’t necessarily that straight forward. Never mind the difference in language, we live in very different times to those in which these ancient tales emerged, and whereas we often read them as we would a novel, it’s very likely that in the past they were considered to be far more symbolic and allegorical. So can we really understand them? Or are we too far removed, not only in time but in culture?
I don’t think we are so very different from our ancestors. We still breathe the same air, we still drink the same water and we still experience the same passions, fears, hopes and grievances. Our basic nature has remained unchanged for millennia, and it is that same nature that these myths are talking about: they tell the same human story we still live today.
What I have come to appreciate is that with a little grounding in study, given a little time to ponder and meditate, anyone can begin to interpret Celtic myths and find something valuable in them, be that a deeper meaning, a connection to the past or simply a profound appreciation of Celtic storytelling.
If you find yourself drawn to the Celtic arts, be that story or music or poetry, then I invite you to consider that there is far more to the myths of the Celtic nations than a collection of old stories. Some of these stories were crafted by exceptional storytellers, intentionally created to be used as cyfarwyddyd, an old Welsh word that not only means ‘story’, but also ‘lore’, ‘direction’ and ‘guidance’.
As the Greek philosopher Sallustius put it . .
To conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.
If this tells us anything, it is that the people of ancient Europe were very aware of the power of myth.
I should stress that using myths to convey complex truths is by no means unique to the Celts. We find this same tendency all over the world, from Aesops fables and the Christian Bible to the folk tales and myths of the Americas, Africa, India and China. Countless traditions have found storytelling to be one of the most powerful ways of helping people understand themselves and the world they live in. And forgive me if I am a little biased, but the Celtic peoples had their own unique artistry when it came to creating such tales.
But if The Four Branches of the Mabinogi were meant to be understood as more than just tales of magic and wonder, why is it not so easy for us modern readers to tune into this deeper layer of meaning? Why can it be so difficult to understand these stories sometimes? Well, in my opinion, what’s often missing is simply the opportunity to consider and discuss what they could mean with other people. I know that may sound very simplistic, but it’s actually an important part of oral storytelling that’s often missing from our modern reading culture.
Oral storytelling traditions don’t begin and end with a quiet audience. Storytelling is a far more communal affair than reading alone, and likewise the tales have a more communal life where there’s more opportunity for discussion, comparison and debate, never mind private contemplation. Think of what can happen after visiting the cinema or the theatre: we often fall into conversation about what we’ve just seen. Consider that happening on a far more regular basis. Modern reading is often a solitary act, but the ancient tradition of sharing stories was, by its very nature, far more communal and participatory.
When we come together and pay attention to the stories, when we talk through our own responses and compare them with those of others, we begin to build a picture made of many perspectives that can inspire new understanding and insight. That’s why this 5 day challenge focuses on group discussion. It may not be possible to perfectly emulate the conditions of storytelling traditions from the distant past, but we can create our own simple versions of them today.
Join me for this free Mabinogi challenge. Over the course of 5 days I will show you a simple process by which you can begin to interpret and understand a short folk-tale from the Mabinogi tradition.
By the end of the 5 days you will
- have intimate knowledge and understanding of a traditional Welsh folktale.
- know how to begin interpreting not only Celtic myths, but stories from all over the world.
- appreciate the legacy of oral storytelling in Celtic cultures.
I don’t pretend to be able to make you wise (I’m still working on that one myself!), but I can introduce you to a wonderfully engaging and rich tradition of stories.
The Mabinogi Challenge is a 5 day challenge that begins Sunday, March 6th, 2022 and ends Thursday 10th, 2022.
Sunday 6th, 1 hour live Zoom call at 8:00pm GMT / 3:00pm EST / 12:00pm PST: In this first session I’ll tell you the tale we’ll be working with, as well as help you understand all of its moving parts.
Tuesday 8th, 20 minute Facebook live at 8:00pm GMT / 3:00pm EST / 12:00pm PST: In this quick session I’ll be talking about some aspects of the story and asking you some questions to consider over the following day.
Wednesday 9th, 20 minute Facebook live at 8:00pm GMT / 3:00pm EST / 12:00pm PST: Another short session to get you thinking about some of the symbols in the story and what they could mean.
Thursday 10th, 1 hour live Zoom call at 8:00pm GMT / 3:00pm EST / 12:00pm PST: In this last session we’ll be coming together to look at how everybody’s responded to the story, to see what insights you’ve had and answer any final questions.
This challenge is totally free, all you need do is put your first name and email address in the boxes below and click ‘sign up’.
I’ll email you links to the live sessions as they come up.
diolch yn fawr iawn