contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Book of Taliesin

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/ 

BOOK REVIEW: Y DAROGAN ANNWN

The image above is the cover for Lorna Smithers’ new collection of poems, Y Darogan Annwn, and it illustrates the themes of the collection. Lorna Smithers explains: “Daronwy, the Brythonic World Tree, is falling. Beneath its boughs appears Y Darogan Annwn, a child-prophet, who prophecies the end of the Age of Man. She must find the source of the poison, outwit the scientists of Gwydion, and release the destructive fury of the spirits of Annwn. Her ultimate decision will be whether to become one with her prophecy.”

Prophecy, like poetry, is a gift of awen, the inspirational energy of Brythonic culture. To be awenydd, open and dedicated to this gift, is to accept its demands. Y Darogan is a child of the gods and a daughter of dragons. She is a shape-shifter who can move through multiple identities, the most poignant of which is that of a little girl. She will never grow up. Her individual life will last for less than a year.

The collection contains 50 poems in all. Two are introductory and the others are arranged in seven sections providing a narrative structure: Lock and Key; The Forest of Daronwy; The Fisher King; The Golden Ring; Doomsday; The End of Days; and The Hereafter. Together they present a wasteland story for our times, drawing on British Celtic and Arthurian themes whilst subverting the patriarchal assumptions of the old texts. The individual poems are each relatively short, and likely to have most impact on people who have some familiarity with the Mabinogion and the Brythonic mythos in which it is embedded. However the wasteland confronted is that of our own times: its military industrial complexes based on a perverted science, and the current slide into climate catastrophe.

For her self-introduction in the first verse, the infant Y Darogan uses pithy lines of power, reminiscent of The Book of Taliesin*, though with updated cultural references.

I have been a fallen star

and a tear in a river of tears

flowing through Annwn.

I have been hydrogen,

oxygen, carbon, nitrogen,

helium burning in the sun.

****

I have been dark matter

I have not been found by

the scientists of Gwydion.

By contrast, Doronwy, the Brythonic World Tree, is introduced in a prose poem, one of the longer individual pieces in the book. Together, these introductory pieces provide a point of departure for the story that builds over the seven main sections. Y Darogan’s mission of cleansing is itself a path of destruction, and “no Champion’s Light stands out on her forehead, just the darkness of the black hole”. Only at the very end is there a regenerative (rather than ‘redemptive’) note. The material demands verbal resilience in the face of multiple and unavoidable stresses, and even at its bleakest, there is power and magic in Lorna Smithers’ writing.

Oh Breath of the Wind

don’t leave me leave me please!”

She does not know how long

she has been wandering Pennant Gofid,

the Valley of Grief through ghosts and mist,

only that she found the treasure, became

the answer, and it’s harder to bear

than the weight of the crow.

The howling of wolves loudens.

The sky blackens with ghost-wings.”

Overall, I believe that Y Dorogan Annwn is a significant contribution to the re-visioning of the world’s great stories as we confront unprecedented challenges on our collective journey. I am grateful for the opportunity to read and review it.

Lorna Smithers’ blogs at https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/ using the title At Peneverdant. Her About section describes her calling as an awenydd and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, God of the Brythonic underworld Annwn, of the dead, and of the Wild Hunt. The Y Darogan Annwn collection is now for sale as a PDF, see link:

https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2019/10/12/y-darogan-annwn/

  • The Book of Taliesin in The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 (Originally published in 1868, when the original material was translated and edited by William F. Skene)

TEMPLE OF SOPHIA

My ‘Temple of Sophia’ recollects the active imagination work I did when practising Druidry and the Way of Sophia as a fusion path. The Temple keeps the work alive for me, though its presentation lacks the dynamism of the original set of practices when I was working them. The Temple structure owes something to the ‘art of memory’ of the ancient Greeks This was a system of impressing ‘places’ and ‘images’ on the mind, which continued into the dawn of modernity. Late practitioners included Giordano Bruno and the English alchemist Robert Fludd (1).

Here is how the visualisation goes.

“[I am] …on the water of a lake, in a rowing boat … mooring on the western shore … walking eastwards on a path between carved stones … on the left hand a Pictish ‘dancing seahorse’ … on the right hand, a Levantine image (a pomegranate tree, serpent coiled around the base, dove at the top) … moving up to the western door of the Temple of Sophia, a domed stone building, half hidden in extensive tree cover … basically round but with arms extended in each of the 4 cardinal directions to create an equal armed cruciform shape.

“I enter the temple through a porch at the western end, over which are written two lines from Primary Chief Bard, in the Book of Taliesin (2): I stood at the cross with Mary Magdalene; I received the Awen from Ceridwen’s cauldron. I find myself facing the eastern wing. Its most striking feature is a rose window at the back. It also has an altar whose white cloth is embroidered with a golden gnostic cross, and strewn with white and red rose petals. At the centre stands a chalice, white candles on either side. Looking around me I see steps spiraling downwards to a crypt, left (northern extension) and steps spiraling upwards to an upper room, right (southern extension).

“The main body of the temple is lit by chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well as natural light from the windows. On the floor is a large mosaic given definition by the golden outline of a circle, crossed at the cardinal points by golden lines which merge at the centre within a fully golden circle, which includes 3 white seed pearls in a triangular cluster at the centre.

“Just outside the outer circle, around the wheel of the year, are depictions of 16 trees: yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west; hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west. Each representation of a tree on the mosaic offers a portal for further communication with the tree. If I visualize myself standing on the image, then I may enter another imaginal landscape for a fuller experience – whether through sensing or communicating with the tree in question, or indeed becoming it.

“Moving in to the delineated quarters of the main circle, I find: north, a seated white hart in a yellow square; east, an eagle with wings outstretched, in a blue circle; south, a mottled brownish adder in a red triangle; west, a silver salmon over a silver crescent moon. These positions, too, are potential portals into an Innerworld landscape. If I visualize myself standing on an image, it has the power to take me to another imaginal landscape, and to forms of engagement – whether simply connecting, communicating or indeed journeying there. At the golden centre of the circle, the cluster of three white pearls recollects the three drops of inspiration distilled from Ceridwen’s cauldron and the visionary power of Awen. There are also other trinities – the triple goddess; the orthodox Christian trinity; or the divine mother, father and child; or the singularity of Tao becoming the two, three and 10,000 things. This is more a place for simple contemplation.

“Spiraling again out of the circle, and exiting north, I descend into the crypt. Here I find an empty sarcophagus dimly lit by candles. Two or three steps below the sarcophagus is a small, warm pool, lit by night lights – a ‘birthing pool’, perchance a re-birthing pool. There is an image of a coiled serpent at the bottom of the pool and a red ankh painted at the centre of the ceiling. I can spend time lying within the sarcophagus, contemplating change, death and dissolution. I can also move on to the birthing pool, and taste the experience there.

“Leaving the crypt and moving across the temple, I climb the steps to the upper room, which has a meditation chair at its centre, with a chalice, or grail, on a small table in front of it. There is a white dove painted on the ceiling; otherwise the room is plain. If I centre myself and drink from the chalice, saying, my heart is home to Sophia, I may find myself in a Garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. Sometimes, full bright sunlight shines on the scene and strikes the dazzling water of the fountain, warming an illuminating each drop as it falls. At other times, I am in moonlit or starlit night, and I hear as much as see the fountain. Either way, I open myself to the experience of the Garden. Sophia herself as psychopomp may or may not appear. Indeed, there is no ultimate distinction between Sophia, the Garden and me.

“On coming back from the vision of the garden, I sit and rest for a while. Eventually I leave the upper room, and, descending into the main body of the temple. I walk to the south point of the circle and from there move, spiralling, into the centre. I face the altar at the east, bowing and giving thanks before I leave the temple.”

(1) Frances A. Yates The Art of Memory London: Pimlico, 1966

(2) John Matthews Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

WESTERN WAYS: DRUIDRY AND SOPHIA

In my world, Druidry and the Way of Sophia are linked, though not the same. In The Western Way (1,2) authors Caitlin and John Matthews made a distinction between a ‘Native’ Tradition and a ‘Hermetic’ one, which act as “complementary opposites”. The Native Tradition is “the inward spiral of a maze which leads into the heart of ancestral earth-wisdom”. The Hermetic Tradition is the outward spiral of the same maze: a path of evolving consciousness which is informed by the inner resources of our ancestral roots, “augmented in a macrocosmic way” (2).

My original interest in a ‘Celtic’ spiritual thread, developing from the 1980s, wasn’t specifically Druid or Pagan. It came mostly through Celtic and Celtic influenced literature. Although a long tradition in its own right, it post-dates the demise of institutional Druidry and Paganism in Celtic speaking regions. Most of it has been written with at least an element of Christian reference and influence. So we get verses like this from the medieval Welsh Book of Taliesin:

I was at the cross

With Mary Magdalene.

I received the Awen

From Ceridwen’s cauldron. (3)

 

What I intuitively liked about this was the sense of a culture working to integrate diverse influences rather than attempting to be ‘pure’. Pure culture (or the attempt at it) narrows horizons and banishes possible resources, becoming limited and inflexible in my view. Sophia is both an image of the divine and expresses a blending of Jewish and Greek wisdom traditions. She came to prominence in Alexandria, the largest city of Roman Egypt. She is cosmopolitan. In the verse above Mary Magdalene (an incarnation of Sophia in some gnostic traditions) and Ceridwen (not a traditional Celtic goddess from Pagan times) both have Sophian roles in relation to male figures seen in different ways as light bringers.

Some of the Celtic-derived stories from the medieval period are clearly breaking new cultural ground whilst using resources from the Celtic past. They belong to a realm of creative mythology, as Joseph Campbell called it, whose purpose is “the opening … of one’s own truth and depth to the depth and truth of another in such a way as to establish an authentic community of existence” (4). Twelfth century Western Europe sought to renew itself by drawing on its classical heritage (native in Italy) and Geoffrey of Monmouth drew on it in his Mystic Life of Merlin (5), for example by dedicating a contemplative ‘Observatory’ to the owl deity Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom. It also drew on Celto-Germanic heritage, with the Arthurian mythos – the matter of Britain – taking a prominent place. This mythos does not name Sophia. But it does have the image of the grail and the story of the grail quest. For me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia, and Caitlin Matthews has described it as “a prime symbol of Sophia” (6).  Perceval, the grail winner, has to encounter the divine in a new way for himself. At one level his role is to honour and heal the land, renewing its tantric energy. But the Grail Goddess, whilst enabling that traditional collective healing, adds a new and more individuated depth of wisdom and compassion. So although I have always been moved by the scenes and images of the more archaically oriented Peredur (7), I have found a more compelling narrative in Parzival (8). It is the innovative aspect of the story that engages me and the grail image that nourishes me.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, (9) Jesus of Nazareth asks three leading followers to say what they think he is like. Peter, traditionally Jewish, says “you are like a just messenger” (or righteous angel in other translations). Matthew, familiar with Graeco-Roman ways, says “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas says, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like”. The teacher responds, ‘I am not your TeacherBecause you have drunk, you have been intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended’.  As I read this text, it is a confirmation that a lived spirituality is beyond packaging.

In this sense, terms like Druidry, Way of Sophia or Western Way have only a limited use. Joseph Campbell said “the best things cannot be told; the second best are misunderstood; after that comes civilised conversation”. The problem is real yet I believe he overstates his case. I think it is worth the effort of finding words, making distinctions and enabling affiliations in full awareness of the difficulties. Civilised conversation with moments of … something more … feels like an honourable pursuit.

  1. Caitlin & John Matthews (1985) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 1 – the Native Tradition London: Arkana
  2. Caitlin & John Matthews (1986) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 2 – the Hermetic Tradition London: Arkana
  3. John Matthews (1991) Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: The Aquarian Press (with additional material by Caitlin Matthews)
  4. Joseph Campbell (1976) The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin
  5. R. J. Stewart (1986) The Mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana 
  6. Caitlin Matthews (1986) Sophia Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God Wheaton, IL: Quest Books
  7. The Mabinogion (1976) Harmondsworth: Penguin (translated with an introduction by Geoffrey Gantz)
  8. Wolfram von Eschenbach, W. (1980) Parzival Harmondsworth: Penguin (translated by A. T. Hatto)
  9. The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (1992) San Francisco, CA, USA: Harper San Francisco (translation with introduction, critical edition of the Coptic text and notes by Marvin Meyer; with an interpretation by Harold Bloom)

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.

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