contemplativeinquiry

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Tag: Brythonic traditions

BOOK REVIEW: SCOTLAND’S MERLIN

Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, by Tim Clarkson Edinburgh: John Donald, 2016. I find this book a useful resource. Author Tim Clarkson says of Merlin that, “like King Arthur and Robin Hood, he is both familiar and mysterious – an enigmatic figure who seems to stand on the shadowy frontier between history and myth”. Clarkson is firmly on the historical side of that frontier, working clearly and accessibly through the early literature as he quests for the source of the legend. Some of it is a proto-Merlin literature in which the central figure bears other names: Lailoken for the wild man of the Caledonian woods; Emrys for the young prophet of Snowdonia. Myrddin Wyllt is the name given in a group of early Welsh poems to the Scottish Lailoken, and Geoffrey of Monmouth goes on to create the medieval Merlin out of these and other disparate sources. Clarkson provides extensive extracts from the literature, showing how the Merlin of Arthurian literary legend was able to emerge.

Clarkson’s main interest is in the Merlin who, traumatised by his experience of the Battle of Arfderydd, flees to the forest. The battle was an historical event, was fought in C. E. 573 and is well covered by Clarkson, who earned his PhD with a study of warfare in early historic (i.e ‘dark age’) northern Britain. Historically, there is real difficulty in knowing who was fighting against whom, and what their motivations were. In a Scottish hagiography of St. Kentigern, Lailoken is simply a veteran of the battle. Its context is not discussed, and little is said about Lailoken himself, beyond describing his broken wildness. He has occasional encounters with St. Kentigern, who eventually blesses him. Shortly after this he suffers a threefold death, as he himself had prophesied, by falling down the banks of the Tweed onto a sharp stake with his head bent into the water. Everyone praises St. Kentigern for enabling Lailoken’s salvation by blessing him in time.

By contrast, Geoffrey’s Merlin (1) recovers, and he becomes a contemplative forest hermit together with his sister Ganieda. His madness has been a journey, not just a torment. A threefold death is prophesied by Merlin, and occurs. But it is not his own death. Instead, Merlin gets a new lease of life revolving around summers in the woods and winters in an observatory that has been built for him. He is able to have erudite and wide-ranging conversations with his visitor Taliesin, presented as a colleague and peer. But the setting is the same, a specific landscape in south west Scotland, where early British place names are still found – Loch Mabon, the River Nith and Caer Laverock (on Solway Firth at the mouth of the Nith) being three of them, with two ancient god forms thereby remembered. For me, the written records are a demonstration of how culture, and cultural agendas, change over time. Fragments of stories are pressed into the service of new cultural imperatives. The deeper past keeps its secrets, even whilst new understandings are crafted around its after-image.

There is no sense here of the what R. J. Stewart calls the Mystery of Merlin (2) – no suggestion of a local connection with the youthful prophet, though local Mabon names point to one. The Romano-Celtic world (including this region, immediately north of the wall) had Apollo Maponus as a significant deity. Clarkson is good at orienting readers to the general culture of early historic Scotland, and relating his Merlin story to a specific local landscape – with a good selection of maps and plates. He explains that, in the context of the sixth century, ‘Britain’ names an island without any political connotations. The terms ‘British’ or ‘Britons’ describe the native Celtic people who once inhabited the whole island. The story is set in what later Welsh literature described as Hen Ogledd (The Old North), which Clarkson takes to be southern Scotland below the Forth Clyde isthmus, “together with some adjacent parts of what is now England”. He notes that, by 800 C.E., on the eve of the Viking invasions, the British ruled in only three areas: Cornwall, Wales and the Valley of the Clyde.

Clarkson is the author of The Men of the North (4) and The Picts (5) which between them cover much of Scotland in the early historic period. He believes that a kernel of the Merlin/Lailoken story – about battle trauma and flight to the woods – is about an historic individual who took part. He also acknowledges that the story may preserve a memory of early shamanic practices in the locality. Merlin lives on in many different ways.

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

(2) R. J Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

(3) Tim Clarkson The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010

(4) Tim Clarkson The Picts: A History Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012

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)

BOOK REVIEW: GWYN AP NUDD

Highly Recommended. Gwyn ap Nudd: Wild God of Faerie, Guardian of Annwfn, by Danu Forest, is a recent offering in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. Gwyn is well-known as the guardian of Glastonbury Tor displaced by St. Michael, but not widely understood. The author’s strategy is to explore Gwyn “through his various forms and tales, from King of the faeries, and lord of the forest, to guardian of the underworld and leader of the dead”. Deepening into her subject, she also suggests “ways to walk with our own darkness on our quest for our own Awen, our souls and our own self-knowledge, diving into the depths and drinking from the great cauldron until we arise at last reborn and radiant, filled with the light within the land”.

Gwyn is divided into five chapters, each of which offers an account of some aspect of Gwyn based on the traditional sources available to us. Each also provides opportunities for personal practice, through guided meditations, prayer, the making of offerings, space cleansing, saining or some other means. The whole book ends with an initiation. Although short and introductory, it is a practitioner’s book and, for me, provides enough input for people to develop and customize their work on a continuing journey.

The book includes a great deal of valuable information. The old sources are richly suggestive in images and themes, but difficult to organize into a coherent narrative. Indeed, coherent narrative is hardly true to the subject, and would likely miss the mark. I found that the chosen chapter divisions worked well for me as means of presenting the material without over-systematizing it. We begin by meeting Gwyn as the ‘white son of mist’, and are then taken into his connections with Annwfn and the Brythonic Faerie folk – the Tylwyth Teg. The other three chapters look at the imagery and meaning of the glass castle; Gwyn’s role in the Mabinogion; and at Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead.

The author relies both on scholarship and intuition in making connections, and lets us know which method she is using in specific cases. I like her transparency of process and the permission it gives to readers to awaken their own Awen when engaging with this material. In this way Danu Forest honours the commitment to provide a portal, and not just a text. For readers willing to make the effort, this book has the power to come alive in their hands. For others, it will provide a wealth of material on Gwyn and demonstrate his continuing relevance for our time. Either way, it’s a skillfully crafted piece of work, and well worth adding to our libraries.

Danu Forest Gwyn ap Nudd: Wild God of Faerie Guardian of Annwfn Winchester & Washington: Moon Books, 2017

MODRON

An unlocatable darkness, beyond deep time, beyond even the metaphysics of origin. Almost detecting, or so it seems, an ultimate motherhood. A motherhood beyond name and gender, beyond being, beyond even latency. The possibility, perhaps, of Modron. No Word. No Bang. No Mabon.

When Mabon ap Modron (Youth, Son of Mother) appears in Celtic culture, he is in fact already archaic. He can only be traced at all through the memory of the oldest animal – the Salmon of Llyn Lliw (1). Mabon and Modron are embedded in the old Brythonic language, but pre-date it. They may well come from a time when paternity was unknown, and the male primarily recognized as a son.

In a previous post (2) I have described working with prayer beads and saying Ama-Aima. This is an Aramaic phrase, which I got from the Sophian Fellowship (Ecclesia Pistis Sophia). For them, as Christian gnostic kabbalists, there is a reference to Sophia as Binah on the tree. As Ama, – not quite Goddess, not quite Shekinah – she is in her maiden, or latent state; as Aima, she becomes the one who is impregnated, bringing form into being.

Working with the beads, I find myself losing this mythic structure and separating Ama-Aima from Sophia. Both name and experience feel more primal. I take ‘Ama’ to belong to a simple and culturally widespread family of sounds like ‘Ma’ and ‘Mama.’ I don’t feel infantilized by using the term. But it does take the practice beyond meditation, beyond prayer, beyond even devotion. It seems, rather, like an act of recognition, or alignment, and a will to relate to a source beyond existence itself. At a more personal and animal level, I suspect that I am also aligning my conscious self with pre-linguistic and ultimately pre-natal levels of being. These do form part of my physical existence and, however remotely, memory. Here I am at cause with the mystery and miracle of the life I have woken into, often in a simple state of gratitude for the opportunity to be human.

If there is a Sophian connection here, it is indicated in images like ‘The Maiden’ in R.J. Stewart’s Dreampower Tarot (3). As Maiden, she who appears in translucent white, as “the still and pure potential which is ever renewed out of the Mother Deep”, her virginity “a spirit of renewal rather than a physical condition”. The primal Mother within The Maiden, from whom she comes, is shown by a Sheela-na-gig behind her. It is a very faint figure, barely visible, but it seems as if the translucent maiden has appeared out of the vagina. This old image is found in Celtic regions, carved upon stones and early churches. “It is an ancient representation of the Mother of All, with her open vagina from which all comes forth and into which all enters and returns.”

In a sense, Sophia is the whole image. But for me Ama-Aima is more the Sheela-na-gig, herself dissolving into empty invisibility. Sophia is more like Stewart’s Maiden, mostly concerned with “stilling and guarding life energies” and learning to direct them inwardly in new forms of illuminating capacity. This is very much the Wisdom I am working with at the present phase of my life

  • The Mabinogion Sioned Davies (translator) Oxford: OUP, 2007 (The reference is to How Culhwch Won Olwen.)

 

 

  • J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot London: Aquarian Press, 1993 (Paintings by Stuart Littlejohn)

POEM: TALIESIN

An unfamiliar (at least to me) image of Taliesin. One of ‘Six Celtic Sonnets’ by Thomas Samuel Jones, first published in 1930. Taken from the ‘Isles of Dream’, an anthology of work from the ‘Celtic Renaissance ‘.

On lonely shores where dreams are drifted sand

He follows to the end a star’s bright course,

A ghostly hunter without hound or horse,

The warrior-bard, last of the Druid band;

But still his wizard harp rings in his hand

Beside the Stream of Sorrow’s hidden source,

Still from a breaking heart his wild songs force

Their way into the god’s mysterious land.

Dauntless he sings, and sees the drear woods turn

To golden orchards by the river bed

Where healing waters of the rainbow run;

And past the valley near great peaks that burn

With beaconing fire the hero-bard is led

Up toward the Dragon City of the Sun.

Taliesin 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.

POEM: CAER SIDI

Poetry from the ‘Celtic Renaissance’ – one of ‘Six Celtic Sonnets’  written by Thomas Samuel Jones and first published in 1930. Taken from ‘The Isles of Dream’, an anthology by John Matthews.

 

Alone, unarmed, the Dragon King must go

To seek the Cauldron by a magic shore,

For gleaming harness wrought of wizard ore

Is powerless against an unknown foe;

The lonely Caer, walled with the flaming Bow,

Lifts dark enchanted horns where wild seas roar,

And in the moon’s white path a mystic door

Moves to strange music only Merlins know.

Within, vast shapes and awful shadows start,

While deathless gods who hold the way-worn stairs,

Do ghostly battle with a hero’s soul;

But at his eagle cry their thronged shields part,

And from the cloven fire the Chieftain bears

High in his mighty grasp the star-rimmed Bowl.

Caer Sidi 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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