contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Bardism

BOOK REVIEW: CERRIDWEN CELTIC GODDESS OF INSPIRATION

Highly recommended. Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration (1) is by Kristoffer Hughes, Chief of the Anglesey Druid Order (2) and a prominent figure in modern Druidry and Paganism. His aim in this book is to “provide you an in-depth exploration of Cerridwen, where she came from, the landscape and peoples that perpetuated her, and who she is today”.

Hughes, born in Anglesey and a first language Welsh speaker. is a scholar and practitioner of his inherited tradition. He has also embraced Druidry as an international movement within modern Paganism. He is at ease, too, with the Cerridwen of modern witchcraft. His whole stance is one of cultural generosity and active support for “appropriate appropriation”.

In its quest for Cerridwen, the book combines close reading of Bardic texts dated from the post-Roman period to early modernity; personal sharing of Hughes’ own path; and opportunities for experiential work. Like many people, my introduction to Cerridwen was through Charlotte Guest’s English version of the late-appearing Hanes Taliesin (Hughes provides his own version early in the book). This shows Cerridwen as a noblewoman skilled in the magical arts, not a Goddess. Like many people, I assumed that this was a demotion going back to the Roman period or the coming of Christianity. Hughes does not share this view. He cannot find Cerridwen among the goddesses of Celtic antiquity, but he welcomes her recent apotheosis within neo-Paganism and witchcraft. He is a devotee himself, and writes: “the New Age traditions, whilst inspired by the distant times, do not need or require to be authenticated by the past; it is a living, breathing spirituality … if it works, keep doing it, and the more you do it, the more life you breath into it”.

Hughes sketches out Cerridwen’s history in the early written material. Sometimes her presence is only implicit – glimpsed, perhaps, as the Annuvian sow (hwch) who guides the magician Gwydion to the base of the world tree in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion. Sometimes we find her lauded and identified as the Mam yr Awen (mother of the Awen). Later, after Wales’ loss of independence and the decay of the Bardic tradition, we find her stigmatised as an evil hag with her connection to Awen erased. But when we come to the Hanes Taliesin, her connection to Awen, and to the initiation of Taliesin (radiant brow) is plain and clear. Her best time is now, though her modern strength lies largely outside her country of origin.

For Hughes, Cerridwen (pronounced Ker ID ven) is a goddess “of angular, bending magic”, and her cauldron is “a vessel of inspiration, a transformative device, a vessel of testing”. This Cerridwen is “the divine conduit of transformative, creative, magical inspiration gleaned from the cauldron of Awen”. Awen itself is “the creative, transformative force of divine inspiration that sings in praise of itself; it is the eternal song that sings all things into existence, and all things call to Awen inwardly”. Gwion, who tastes the three drops distilled from the cauldron in Hanes Taliesin, after a series of further trials becomes Taliesin, “the outward expression of the power, magic and action of the Awen”, indicated by his radiant brow. The final section of the book, Stirring the Cauldron: Ritual and Practise, offers readers a chance to meet Cerridwen and work with her Bardic mysteries themselves.

As issues relevant to Cerridwen and what she stands for, the book looks at the meaning of annwfn and its denizens the andedion. ‘Underworld’ and ‘Otherworld’ are not quite accurate as descriptors, and the andedion, though different from us, are not best thought of as ‘supernatural’. Hughes also explains that medieval Wales, except to a limited extent in the border counties, did not share in the English and continental persecution of witches. Swyngyfaredd (enchantment/sorcery/magic) was part of life and its practitioners respected. This changed only with the early modern Anglicisation of culture. Hughes also includes a chapter on Iolo Morganwyg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826) and his ‘awen-filled legacy’. It was he who invented the awen symbol /|\ and much else in modern Druid and Bardic culture. He is often remembered as a literary forger because he presented his contributions as a rediscovery of lost texts. They nonetheless revitalised a dying culture at a time when sensibilities were changing again, and becoming more receptive to the value of old traditions.

With all these riches, Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration is a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in modern Druidry.

(1) Kristoffer Hughes Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2021

(2) http://www.angleseydruidorder.co.uk/

THE SACRED HEAD OF BLADUD

The historic city of Bath is about thirty miles from where I live and – from another direction – thirty miles from where I was born. It has always been part of my psychogeography. This post concerns both its ‘historical’ and ‘legendary’ past.

“A satisfying connection between modern archaeology, ancient legend, sacred kingship and Celtic religion is found at Aquae Sulis, the Roman name for Bath, England. In his legendary Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] (1) Geoffrey of Monmouth reports that King Bladud, grandfather of Bran and Branwen, founded the site and taught the druidic arts of ancestor magic and flight, eventually crashing to his death on the site of what is now London (the name Bladud means ‘light-dark’ or ‘bright-shadow’). In his Vita Merlini [Life of Merlin] (2), Geoffrey of Monmouth has Bladud and his consort Aleron (‘wings’) presiding over the hot springs of Bath, which are at the centre of the Bardic universe described by Taliesin to Merlin, forming the gateway to the Otherworld.

On show in the museum at Bath is a superb Celtic solar head (often inaccurately called a Gorgon’s head). The carving is a circular relief of an imposing male face with wild hair, long moustaches and staring eyes. He has wings on either side of his head and is surrounded by flames. Beneath his chin are two serpents, linked in the manner of a torque, the Celtic symbol of royalty. This solar deity is probably the being called Bladud in the legendary histories, connected to magic, flight and a fall from the heights to the depths. He has upon his brow the mark of the three rays, which are very often described as the primal three powers of universal creation.

The goddess at Bath, presiding over the sacred hot springs, was called Sul or Sulis, which means ‘eye’ or ‘gap’ (with a sexual connotation), for she is a variant of Ceridwen, the goddess of the Underworld. The entire Celtic/Roman complex of Aquae Sulis is an excellent example of ancestral Underworld magic refined by Roman politics into a temple of Minerva.

“The sacred or prophetic head is an embodiment of the relationship between the three worlds, for it is aware in all worlds, through all time. While we may have ideas that an anthropologist would suggest originated in primitive head-hunting magic, the theme of the sacred head becomes an allegory of divine and human perception and declaration.

“There is a further element to the sacred-head theme, for it is also interlinked with beliefs and practices concerning the regeneration of life, particularly with the cauldron. Titanic figures such as Bran, acting as sacred kings and guardians of the land, also partake of the mystery of the sun at midnight, light regenerating out of darkness. And this, after all, is the secret of inspiration, a sudden light born out of fruitful darkness.”

R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford, 1996

(1) Geoffrey of Monmouth History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966 (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

(2) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley, 2011

NOTE: the first illustration is from R. J. Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003 , illustrated by Miranda Grey. The Bladud image is on the reverse of each card, implicitly re-ascribed to Merlin as embodying the same archetype in a different way. The second illustration can be found on http://www.romanbaths.co.uk – click on discover and then walkthrough.

DREAMING THE MAGICAL CHILD

I often experience winter as a time of powerful dreams, and I had one yesterday night. It moved through three phases, ending with the image of a magical child as guide.

First phase: I am in a crowded place in a sizeable town. I am apparently in charge of two or three young children – close relatives, by the feel of it, though I am not clear on the specific relationships. I do know that I am of the grandparental generation. Suddenly, I notice them running off towards a stretch of park and woodland. I need to catch up and keep them safe.

Second phase: As I mobilise and follow, I am not catching up as rapidly as I had hoped. I notice that the terrain is wetter and rougher than fits with the initial image. The location feels quite different. I may have to cross water and am I not dressed for it for this eventuality. I assume that the children find this easier than I do, and I have confidence that they are OK. I am less sure about myself. This pursuit is a bit of a stretch.

Third phase: I halt at a riverbank. The boy – only one child, the others somehow no longer present or relevant to this dream – has stripped to the waist and taken like a fish to the water, swimming strongly against the current. He seems to be older than when I last looked. I have a moment of panic and dismay before leaping in after him. Fortunately for me, a sort of backpack I have been wearing turns into a comically inflatable throne. There is no doubt now that the boy knows what he is doing and is purposefully leading me upstream towards the source of the river. Paddling with my hands and arms, my task now is to follow as best I can. As I start following in earnest, I wake up.

The ‘I’ of the first phase is apparently in charge, yet vague and inattentive. Only action by the children gets me to notice and pay attention, though I continue to sport an air of responsible authority, with the felt need to keep the children safe. In the second phase ‘I’ am different, becoming aware of a more rugged environment and feeling challenged by it. I am more positive about the children’s capacity, and less so about my own. The third phase is different again. Halting at a riverbank, I recognise the boy as a version of the archetypical magical child, who naturally finds the sacred in all things, connecting us to a larger life. He is numinously present in this phase of the dream. He is the leader. I am the follower. My means of locomotion is clumsy and absurd. But at least I have one, and I do follow. The constructed ego has a significant part to play, it seems, on this journey, but not the leading role it has imagined for itself. Once I start ‘following in earnest’, I am free to wake up.

At the outer world level, culturally, perhaps the wisdom of age includes recognising and making space for the wisdom of youth. In Irish myth, the elderly poet, shaman and sage Finnegas spent seven years trying to catch the salmon of knowledge. When he finally caught the salmon, he asked his apprentice Demne to cook it. As he worked, the boy burned his thumb and instinctively sucked it – and so it was he, not his teacher, who became imbued with the salmon’s wisdom. Finnegas graciously gave Demne the whole salmon to eat, renaming him Fionn. Fionn went on to become the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool).

PRIMARY MATERIALS

 

“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.

“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;

“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;

“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;

“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;

“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;

“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;

“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.

“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)

The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg,  by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.

Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.

Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.

Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.

At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.

Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense,  I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.

  1. J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
  2. James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
  3. William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)
  4. https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/07/12/the-eye-of-contemplation/ 

JOHN COWPER POWYS: PORIUS AND TALIESIN

Porius (1) is John Cowper Powys’ last novel. It took him seven years to write, and he completed it in 1949, when he was 77. It is set in the year 499 CE, in North Wales. Porius is a Romano-British prince. Arthur, a suspect foreigner to most local people, reigns as Emperor. Rome is ruled by Goths, but links are maintained with Constantinople. The Saxons are an existential threat. People have to find a way of dealing with the situation in which they find themselves. But the book is at least as much about the inner lives of the characters as it is about the action they take.

Powys thought of Porius as his masterpiece. His publishers did not agree and insisted that he cut it by a third, which he did over two agonising years. Fortunately, a complete edition is available now thanks to modern editors Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir. In her foreword Krissdottir says, “I am always reminded when I read the novel of these lines: ‘we are always in error, lost in the wood, standing in chaos, the original mess, creating a brand-new world’. Powys was as gloriously lost by the time he had written Porius as the reader sometimes is … but he was still the superb craftsman, who knew that it was the story itself that had the power to shape the forest within and without, that had the power to create a brand-new world”.

Instead of writing a review, I want to focus on one character, Taliesin, and what Powys has to say through him about the creative life. Powys has a number of point of view characters, with a variety of stances. He seems to give them equal air-time, making Porius a genuinely multi-vocal novel. Taliesin is portrayed as a young, mercurial bard, popular thanks to outstanding skill in cooking as well as poetry. (The cover illustration above is of Merlin – old, saturnine, more central to the book as a whole). Powys builds Taliesin’s bardic character, and the idiosyncratic working of his awen, with care.

“Taliesin had indeed worked out for himself, quite apart from his power of expressing it in such assonances and alliterations as had never been heard before, a really startling philosophy of his own. This philosophy depended on a particular and special use of sensation; and its secret had the power of rendering all matter sacred and pleasure giving to the individual soul. And it had the power … of fusing the immense past with the immeasurable future and of doing this, moreover, not by means of an ‘eternity’ beyond experience and imagination, but by means of a quivering vibrating, yet infinitely quiescent moment of real Time.”

Taliesin can rely on an easy fluency with language. More important is his capacity for open creative reverie, based on a deep sensitivity to the perceptions of the moment. He is described as sitting on a four-legged stool in the deepening of a late October evening. As he sits, he feels the full warmth of a fire and is able to see “the glittering path of moonlight on wind-ruffled water”. He can see a hawk’s nest, and the “ancestral sword of Cynan ap Clydno, thrust to the depth of half its blade, in the buried stump of a vanished oak tree”. The sword is reminiscent of a cross. Taliesin muses that “any sort of thing happening near a cross, not to speak of a sword, always seems in some way to be watched – if not heard and guarded against”. J.C. Powys comments, “considering the sword and the cross, the moonlit space between that figure on the four-legged stool and Clydno’s rusty weapon may well have vibrated with dangerous antipathy as the words ‘The Mothers’ and ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Annwfn’ floated away towards the lake. Rather than writing, Taliesin speaks into the darkness. Writing may come later. The piece that follows is lengthy, and eventually settles into a contemplation of “the thing none can utter, the thing inexpressible” yet “known from before the beginning”. Here is the final section:

“I know it from pond slime and

frog spawn and grub spit,

From bracken’s green coral,

white lichen, yellow mosses,

Newts sinking with their arms

out to reedy pools’ bottoms,

Swords rusting in their oak

stumps, wrapped in the long rains,

Eggs rotting in their lost nests,

enjoying the wild mists, I know it from all these, and to

men proclaim it:

The ending forever of the Guilt

sense and God sense,

The ending forever of the Sin

sense and Shame sense,

The ending forever of the Love

sense and Loss sense,

The beginning forever of the Peace paradisic,

The ‘I feel’ without question,

The ‘I am’ without purpose,

The ‘it is’ that leads nowehre,

the life with no climex,

The ‘Enough’ that leads forward

to no consummation

The answer to all things, that

yet answers nothing,

The centre of all things, yet all

on the surface,

The secret of Nature, yet Nature goes blabbing it

With all of her voices from

earth, air, fire, water!

Whence comes it? Whither

goes it? It is nameless; it is

shameless;

It is Time free at last from its Ghostly Accuser,

Time haunted no more by a

Phantom Eternal;

It is godless; but its gods are as

sea sand in number;

It’s the square with four sides

that encloses all circles;

Four horizons hath this Tetrad

that swallows all Triads;

It includes every creature that

Nature can summon.

It excludes from Annwfyn nor

man, beast nor woman!”

The mid twentieth century was a time of considerable interest in the Matter of Britain and Arthurian themes. But generally, then, we find a polished and rather conservative Christian perspective, applicable even to Taliesin. The Inkling Charles Williams wrote two collections of linked verse about him – Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars (2). The latter collection includes these lines from the poem Taliessin in the Rose Garden:

“I was Druid-born and Byzantium trained.

Beyond Wye, by the Cauldorn of Ceridwen, I saw

the golden cycle flash in the forest, and heard

the pagans mutter a myth; thence by the ocean

dreaming the matter of Logres I came where the heirarchs

patter the sacred names on the golden floor

under the throne of Empire.”

John Cowper Powys, too, was a man of his time. But insofar as his Porius relies on legendary history, he borrows more from archaic Welsh tradition than the better known pan European literature that developed out of it. He himself is much more nature friendly and Pagan in sensibility. I see him as following a broadly emancipatory direction in modern spiritual culture, and we are his heirs.

(1) John Cowper Powys Porius: a Romance of the Dark Ages Overlook Duckworth, 2007. Edited by Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir, with a foreword by Morine Krissdottir. The first abbreviated edition was published in 1951.

(2) Charles Williams Taliessin Through Logres & The Region of the Summer Stars Berkeley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2016. Edited with an introduction by Sorina Higgins. (Taliesin Through Logres first published in 1938; The Region of the Summer Stars in 1944)

BOOK REVIEW: DRUIDRY AND THE FUTURE

Highly recommended. Druidry and the Future is intended as “antidote to despair” according to author Nimue Brown. She continues:

Druidry & Future 51hWUITk4HL._AC_UY218_ML3_

“This book explores the many ways in which the Druid path can help us to respond to climate chaos, necessary cultural change and political uncertainty. By mixing the spiritual and practical we can be more resilient and resourceful, and aspire to live in regenerative and generous ways.”

An affordably priced and relatively slender volume, Druidry and the Future is full of ideas. It is built around 16 essays covering diverse topics: working with Pagan stories: seasonal living: bardic powers; ‘pragmatic’ animism; working with the elements (three essays); de-colonising your soul; your body is nature; justice and balance; honouring the divine through action; putting ourselves back in the landscape; community solutions; self-care and kindness; trees and wetlands; regeneration and restoration. For me, there is a single overarching theme: enlisting the resources of modern Druid culture to build resilience in the face of climate catastrophe. This resilience includes personal and collective aspects, where humans and their communities are understood as wholly embedded in the wider web of life.

Nimue Brown is clear that “it is not enough to be sustainable”. The crisis invites, or rather requires, a radical change in values and behaviour. Human civilization is ‘just people’ and we have the capacity to live differently. For her, “this is what Druidry means right now. It’s about answering the question of how to put civilization in balance with our living planet. This is Druidry for radical change and I think we’re well placed to take on this work and to inspire others. Philosophy has always been part of Druidry, so has teaching and communication, inspiration and vision. We can, and must make a difference.”

BOOK REVIEW: THE BROKEN CAULDRON

14606507_342051356186231_2360625875228974566_nHighly recommended. Author Lorna Smithers describes The Broken Cauldron as “a fragmentary collection of essays, stories and poems”. Yet I experienced this book as a unity, a poet’s meditation even when presenting technical information about fracking and nuclear power. For it is built around a compelling core image, made visible in Tom Brown’s striking cover illustration.

At its fullest and most majestic, that image is “a cauldron full of stars”, the womb of Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, and traditionally the source of inspiration, wisdom and rebirth. Yet here the cauldron lies shattered, the universe is fragmented, and the world is out of kilter. Smithers takes myth out of archetypal romance and into the wounded world of history, making it awkward, jarring – and dynamic. She confronts us with where we are and transmits a warning wake-up call from gods and storytellers.

In her introduction, Smithers explains how she was led into a quest to understand the significance of the broken cauldron in ancient British history. The myths she studied were penned in medieval Wales but are rooted in an older oral tradition. All tell the story of the cauldron. When it is broken or stolen, cataclysmic consequences are unleashed. Smithers was particularly drawn “to the violence of Arthur’s raid on Annwn (the Otherworld) and assault on its inhabitants. The moment Lleog thrusts his flashing sword into the cauldron came to symbolize the patriarchal world view … founded on oppression of the Other”. In her poem about this she writes:

“The sinking blade lit like lightening.

Reflected in it faces of a million million souls,

Eyes melting, disintegrating like shadows

Into pure white light.”

Lleminog, another of Arthur’s companions, carries the broken prize away:

“Lleminog scooped the cracked cauldron

Into his hand,

Escaped like a thief into the night

With moon, stars, sun, broken pieces

Of Old Mother Universe jangling in his pocket.”

Smithers works under the aegis of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god “who haunts the peripheries of the Bardic tradition”. His world is Annwn – an Otherworld described as ‘not-world’ and ‘the deep’. There he keeps a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, “the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe, Ceridwen”. Much of our inherited Bardic tradition is seen as problematic. In particular, “Taliesin epitomizes all that is questionable and dislikeable” about it. The poet of The Broken Cauldron.is an outsider “watching with horror as Gwion escapes with the Awen and Gwyddno’s horses perish in the poison” – paying the terrible price for three drops of inspiration. The Gwion who becomes Taliesin pays little attention to this and becomes a sycophantic court Bard as kingdoms fall.

Gwyn offers the possibility of fixing the broken cauldron by gathering the poison back into it from the land, and Lorna Smithers supports this work by telling the stories of “marginalized figures – the overshadowed, the oppressed and the slaughtered”. The Broken Cauldron is divided into five sections: The Broken Cauldron and The Flashing Sword, Ridiculous, Drowned Lands, Operation Cauldron and Uranium.  The urgency of myth trying to reconstruct itself for are times is conveyed in a number of ways. One is the striking language of set piece poems, as in Dumb Man:

You come mouthing words.

There are burnt out cities in your mouth.

The vocabulary of sign language

Cannot convey the stories

You need to tell.

There are the cumulative effects of the giant Diwrnach’s repeated death in slightly variant stories from different regions of Celtic Britain, as he defends a cauldron in a feasting hall and is slain by his own sword. Smithers describes this back-to-backing of versions as a ‘montage’. There is dark whimsical fantasy in The Day I Raised the Dead, which takes place in The Court of the Sons of the King of Suffering – a “joyless place”. There is a realistic account of a journey to find out about, and find, the drowned Porth Wyddno, once one of “the three chief ports of the island”, which Smithers places in Lancashire rather than at Borth in west Wales. There is a discussion of uranium and the nuclear power station at Sellafield aka Windscale aka Calder Hall, and its inclusion in the myth of the “cauldron which is filled with stars” and dangerously toxic when messed with.

Most poignant, for me, is the story of Morfran, which straddles time. His mother, “a scientific genius with a meticulous eye for detail” runs an award winning chemical plant. Growing up gawky and ugly as a cormorant, he has been nick-named Afagddhu (utter darkness) by a mother who is determined to fix him and make him presentable. Events occur, though not to him. At the end of his story, he muses “perhaps that’s where I’ll go, down into the deep where there is no ugliness and no perfection, surface with a fish for a clean breath or air before her child is born and the cycle begins again.”

There is much more. The Broken Cauldron is a wonderful example of the re-visioning of myth, fully immersed in the old traditions, yet bringing out new meanings and new possibilities for our time.

 

Lorna Smithers The Broken Cauldron King’s Lynn, Norfolk: Biddle’s Books, 2016 Cover art by Tom Brown.

POEM: TALIESIN

Poem by Ross Nichols, who founded OBOD in 1964.  I like his seamless interweaving of naturalistic, mythic and theosophical themes – because for him they are one integrated experience. For me the poem reads like the work of someone who needed to live it in order to write it.

Here the Fish enters

The world of dark water

Pre-birth waters

Waterworld Elysium

Lake Tegid and the magic weir.

Much does he grow,

Many his transformations.

Warm are the waters,

The dark waters of Tegid,

And they swiftly flow

Downwards as he grows.

Talisin is found in the weir:

Elphin finds him

In a bag of leather

Where the waterworld dams,

Where the womb-waters

Are falling terribly

At the weir of birth.

The entering fish

Was the spirit of Taliesin:

His transformations

Were the many souls and bodies of Taliesin:

Leading him gently, drifting him slowly

Into the bodily definition of Taliesin,

His bag of leather,

His separated skin.

And Taliesin, after his separated life,

His songs and his wonders. His challenges and his fame,

Shall enter again as a Fish,

Shall know again sufferings and transfigurations

And the waters of Tegid.

For Taliesin was ever upon earth,

Knew all things, suffered all things.

And Taliesin shall be

In many wonderful shapes,

A grain of wheat and a hare

Sown and running

While there are fields, and the spirit of men,

Leaping alive at a harvest,

Or silver in the waters of time.

This poem can be found in the collection Prophet Priest and King: the Poetry of Ross Nichols edited and introduced by Jay Ramsay Lewes: Oak Tree Press, 2001.

POEM: PRIMARY CHIEF BARD

Gnostic Bardistry from The Book of Taliesin? These are just five of the verses, selected by me from one poem. What interests me is not so much working out what to us seems like a set of puzzles, but how something new and dialogical is created by interweaving indigenous material and biblical references. I say a few words in italics after each verse.

Primary Chief Bard

Primary Chief Bard

Am I to Elffin

And my native country

Is the region of the summer stars.

 

The first statement is a statement of identity. It begins with a local (though important) role, and goes on to the cosmic and transcendent. This taps into a sense of belonging somewhere else (whether perceived as a place or state). It makes me think that statements like ‘being here now, in the present’ and ‘my native country is the region of the summer stars’ only seem contradictory: meaning depends so much on context and the work that words are doing. If the two statements are separated and polarised, they diminish into limiting slogans. Taken together, they can lead us to a different quality of experience.

I was full nine months

In the womb of the hag Ceridwen.

Before that I was Gwion

But now I am Taliesin.

Taliesin’s current personal identity is explained in terms of a second birth, in this life, triggered by the actions of Ceridwen. This second birth fits him to be a Bard and take the Bardic name ‘Radiant Brow’, one that bespeaks major shifts in energy and consciousness. It also allows the sense of the summer stars as his ‘native country’ to be real within him. It orients him to his true home.

I was patriarch

To Elijah and Enoch.

I was there at the crucifixion

Of the merciful Mabon.

Elijah and Enoch ascended to heaven without dying. They have deep roles in Jewish mysticism. They are in the tradition of so-called ‘ascended Masters’. If we treat these metaphors (insofar as they are metaphors) as concerned with enlightenment, then – as their ‘Patriarch’ – Taliesin is claiming primacy over them. He is in some sense a Christ figure and so can be present at the crucifixion of another Christ figure, referred to here by the name of the magical child of British tradition ‘the Mabon’.

 

I was at the cross

With Mary Magdalene.

I received the Awen

From Ceridwen’s cauldron.

The poem presented here is a product of the later Middle Ages, likely as late as the fourteenth century. Traditions giving Mary Magdalene the role of major teacher and possibly spouse of Jesus were deep underground, but everyone in Christendom Knew of her witnessing role at both the crucifixion and the resurrection, and so as privileged in some way. She also shares her name with Mary the mother. The two couplets together bring the idea of Christ’s transformation through death on the cross with Taliesin’s transformation from Ceridwen’s cauldron, and the critical role of a feminine power in each.

I was in the larder

In the land of the Trinity

And no one knows whether my body

Is flesh or fish.

Despite all the above, Taliesin remains an enigma – a shape shifter and trickster. He defies definition and description and won’t fit into any box that attracts unwanted piety. Other readers may understand this verse much better than I do, but I see it as very tough minded and unwilling to let me parcel up this poem and tie it with a neat bow. To the extent that I get a sense of medieval Welsh literature, this seems very characteristic. However, in the most obvious ‘Land of the Trinity’ (Western Christendom) people want to know where everyone stands. The accepted narrative is that we’re with Jesus the avatar of Pisces and through the sign of the fish we know him. And yet the old Celtic world has many trinities and many fish, including the salmon of wisdom. And Taliesin’s body might be flesh after all. So we are thrown back on our resources, with riddling words and ambiguous images to reflect them.

 

The complete poem can be found in Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland by John Matthews London: The Aquarian Press, 1991.

POEM: ARTHUR

Behind storm-fretted bastions gray and bare

Flame-crested warriors of Cunedda’s line

Feast in a gold ring, – their targes shine

Along the wall and clang to gusts of air;

And in the shadow, torches blown aflare

Reveal a chief, half human, half divine,

With brooding head, starred by the Dragon Sign,

Hung motionless in some undreamed despair.

But when he starts, three torques of twisted gold

Writhe on his breast, for voices all men fear

Wail forth the battle-doom dead kings have borne;

And as the mead-hall fills with sudden cold,

Above the wind-tossed sea his heart can hear

The strange gods calling through their mystic horn.

Arthur is one of Six Celtic Sonnets written by Thomas Samuel Jones and included in From the Isles of Dream: Visionary Stories and Poems of the Celtic Renaissance, selected by John Matthews and with a foreword by Robin Williamson (Floris Books, 1993).

Thomas Samuel Jones (1882-1932) came from Welsh and Irish stock and was born in Oneida County, New York State, near the Adirondack Mountains. Each of the six sonnets reflects a facet of Celtic tradition. They were originally published in 1930 as part of the collection Aknahton and Other Sonnets. For those of us who resonate with Druid and Celtic spirituality, they are part of our modern cultural ancestry.

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