A BIRD OF RHIANNON
“They went to Harlech, and sat down and were regaled with food and drink. As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and began to sing them a song, and all the songs that they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet the song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years”. (1)
The three birds are blackbirds, known as the birds of Rhiannon. They are at least partly of the Otherworld, for Rhiannon is a potent deity, linked to the moon and sovereignty. In the story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2), the giant Yspadadden Pencawr demands that the hero Culhwch capture Rhiannon’s birds to entertain him on the night before his death – a death which will immediately follow his daughter Olwen’s marriage to Culhwch, to whom his kingship will be passed. Yspadadden describes the birds as “they that wake the dead and lull the living asleep”.
Hence, in The Druid Animal Oracle (3). The blackbird is understood as “a being who can send us into the dreamtime and who can speak with discarnate souls”. The Oracle also points out that “Blackbirds are fond of rowan berries, one of the sacred trees in Druid tradition. …. Eating these berries, the blackbird is able to connect us with his healing song to the regenerative powers of the Otherworld and the Unconscious”.
In How Culhwch won Olwen, a blackbird also figures as one of the oldest animals who need to be consulted in a quest to rescue the Mabon, the divine youth of Brythonic tradition, from imprisonment. As the Jungian scholar John Layard (4) says, “all these figures conduct us back into the past, which is the equivalent to psychic depth … into the heart of the mother-world below, the matrix out of which all life grew up and the ever-renewing source of it”. The blackbird is in fact the youngest and most accessible of these helpful animals, “functions of instinct that assist if we are humble enough to ask their help”. For Layard, the blackbird is the bearer of “a maternal spirit-message”.
In the apparent world, my wife Elaine and I share our back garden with a pair of blackbirds, and sometimes chicks, for some months of the year. They are here now. They do sing both at dawn and dusk, with the twilight song for me the most notable. They have chosen a slightly hidden space and our willingness to have a relatively unkempt garden is partly for their sake.
I have recently been visited by another blackbird, also in a garden. This garden is both familiar and unfamiliar, known and not known. It appeared to me in a state of mild to moderate trance, and resembles the Sophia’s garden I used to work with as an innerworld nemeton. But much has changed. Sophia’s garden had a link to a temple and was well kept. Generally, it was a noonday kind of place, bright sun flashing on the fountain at the centre, illuminating the water. There were rose beds surrounding it, and fruit trees trained up mature brick walls. Alternatively, it was a place of magical silence in black night, lit up by full moon and stars. Now there is no temple. The fountain and rose beds, whilst still in place, show signs of reduced maintenance. It is twilight, liminal, with limited visibility.
A blackbird appeared and sang to me in this space, meeting me on mutually safe and accessible ground. Its message was one of availability and reassurance. I returned it in a spirit of openness and friendly affirmation. And then I was back in everyday reality. Now I simply wait, tentatively expectant, open to further connection.
- Sioned Davies The Mabinogion Oxford University Press, 2007 The second branch of the Mabinogi
- Sioned Davies The Mabinogion Oxford University Press, 2007 How Culhwch won Olwen
- Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid animal oracle: working with the sacred animals of the Druid tradition New York: Fireside, 1994
- John Layard A Celtic quest: sexuality and soul in individuation Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, 1985
The song of a blackbird is indeed one of the simple enchantments that can bring the everyday world and the Otherworld into harmony and a blessing from Rhiannon into our lives.
Yes, blackbirds are certainly magical and liminal birds.
I hadn’t heard of Layard or known he had written about the Oldest Animals. That they are seen as messengers of the Mother – Modron who lost her son who the knights are questing for – makes sense.
Makes sense to me too. Thanks for this comment.
[…] I hear the blackbirds, two of them, without seeing them. This follows a visit in August last year, when there was only one. At that time, I wrote a post about blackbirds as birds of Rhiannon and other aspects of their place in Welsh mythology and modern Druidry: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/a-bird-of-rhiannon/ […]
Yesterday, I read of Sophia and the earth. Early this morning, during the full moon eclipse, a pair of blackbirds landed in my garden tree and sang to me. Trying to find some meaning in this, i came across your writings. I too, am welsh. I’m overwhelmed with emotion at a time where i felt utter despair. I don’t know what this all means yet, but thank you.
Many thanks, June, for this moving comment. My very best wishes to you in your process of meaning making at what sounds like a difficult time. Blessings, James
[…] (4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/8/4/a-bird-of-rhiannon […]