contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Gareth Knight

BENDIGEIDFRAN (BRAN THE BLESSED)

Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, is a legendary King of the Britons. He is best known to us through the medieval Welsh text The Second Branch of the Mabinogi (1). The primary theme is hope betrayed, most chillingly by Efnysien, Bran’s “brother on his mother’s side”. A marriage feast ends in a series of disasters. But this is not the whole story.

The marriage is between Bran’s sister Branwen and Matholwch the King of Ireland, intended to bring the two kingdoms together in peace and amity. But Efnysien mutilates the Irish party’s horses at the celebration hosted by Bran. It is among the worst things he could do.

In one savage, impulsive act, Efnysien opens the space for an outpouring of resentment, suspicion and hostility – eventually, from both the Irish and the British people. Bran’s efforts to resolve the situation through explanation, consultation and negotiation end in failure. The level of compensation and apology he offers is too much for the British and too little for the Irish. The time comes when Branwen is seriously abused in Ireland. The absolute breakdown of trust between the two countries leads to a bitter, brutal war.

After the war, Bran returns from Ireland with seven surviving companions, his only victory being that he has got them home. Ireland is completely devastated. Bran has been wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear, probably a mortal wound. Bran makes a radical decision, leading to a period of healing and renewal for his companions and a new protective role for his country. “Bendigeidfran ordered his head to be cut off. ‘And take my head’, he said, ‘and carry it to the Gwynfryn in London (the White Mount, now the Tower of London) and bury it with its face towards France. And it will take you a long time; you will feast in Harlech for seven years, with the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. And you will find the head to be as good company as it ever was when it was on me. And you will stay for eighty years in Gwales in Penfro. And so long as you do not open the door to Aber Henfelin, facing Cornwall, you can remain there, and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer. Make for London and bury the head. And now set off across the sea”.

Bran has never been an average human. Too big “to fit inside any house”, he wades across the sea to Ireland “carrying all the stringed instruments on his back”. Later, he bridges the River Liffey by lying down across the river: “hurdles were placed on him, and his men walked on top of him to the other side”. Bran is more than a physical giant. There is something numinous and otherworldly about him, built into his name Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed.

The term ‘blessed’ points to something other than it would in the life of a Celtic saint. Caitlin & John Matthews call Bran the Blessed a “titanic god of the Celts … a god of earth and mountain” (2). R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson describe him as a “primal guardian deity” (3) enacting a role of sacred king traditionally concerned with music, poetry and bridging. In the narrative world of the The Second Branch, such roles are alluded to rather than fully described, but the world is full of magic and spiritually ambiguous, with formal religion little mentioned.

The decapitation of Bran is a magical act. It has two successive effects, both of them benign. The first is when the presence of the head enables an extended period of protected respite for Bran’s companions: the seven years when they feast and hear the birds of Rhiannon (4), and then eighty years as “the Assembly of the Noble Head”. During this time, they forget “all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, [and] … any grief in the world”. Life is pleasurable and delightful and no one seems to age.

It has to end, for the story to continue. The western door is opened, by Heilyn son of Gwyn, driven by curiosity. Grief, loss and ageing return to the companions’ world. They hasten to London to complete their destined task. As long as the head remains buried, no enemy can conquer the kingdom. This is where The Second Branch story ends. Bran, through the agency of his buried head, is confirmed as enduring protector of the land.

There is a coda. It is said that King Arthur dug the head up in later days in the belief that no one but he should protect the country, and that subsequently the head was lost. In later days, the power of the head was transferred to the presence of resident ravens. Bran’s name means raven (also crow), which allows the ravens to take on his power. He is them. They are him. Ravens are kept in the Tower of London to this day, a practice insisted on by Charles II, concerned for the preservation of his country as a kingdom. During World War II the ravens fled after a bombing raid, and every effort was made to ensure that they were swiftly replaced. Seven ravens, the responsibility of Ravenmaster Chris Skaife, live in the Tower now. (5).

(1) The Mabinogion Oxford: the University Press, 2007. (Translated with an introduction by Sioned Davies)

(2) Caitlin & John Matthews The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition London: Arkana, 1985 (Foreword by Gareth Knight)

(3) R. J. Stewart & Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford/Cassell plc, 1996 (Colour illustrations by Chris Down)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/8/4/a-bird-of-rhiannon

(5) https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/the-ravens

DION FORTUNE: THE SEA PRIESTESS

I like to attune myself, imaginally, to significant moments in time, place and culture. I have always done this but I now think of it as an aspect of my Druidry. I have become more conscious about it.

Here I am contemplating an alignment of 1930’s Britain, Brean Down on the North Somerset coast (Bell Head in the book), and the occultist Dion Fortune. I am especially thinking of her determination to “bring back into modern life something that has been lost and forgotten and that is badly needed”. Rather than being a review of her book The Sea Priestess (1), this post is a reflection on spiritual ancestry, and an acknowledgement of her project’s success. As the publisher of the 2003 edition happily notes, “The Sea Priestess is a classic occult teaching novel with romantic overtones, and a foundation work for modern Wicca, paganism, and ritual magic”.

Gareth Knight outlines the main theme in his foreword to the 2003 edition. “The story concerns a high initiate, Vivien Le Fay Morgan – or Morgan Le Fay as she comes to be called – who is about to undertake a major work of sea and moon magic for which purpose she needs to find a suitable location upon which to build a temple complete with living accommodation. At the same time she needs to find a man suitable to train as her assistant in the magical work. With commendable economy of means, she kills two birds with one stone by selecting a local real estate agent, Wilfred Maxwell, who has the necessary professional contacts to find a location, together with sufficient skills to help her refurbish and redecorate it appropriately. He also has the temperament and personal circumstances that can make him a capable, if unlikely, magical apprentice.”

Wilfrid and Morgan get to know each other at weekends where he is busy turning an old army fort at the point of Bell Head, named Bell Knowle, into Morgan’s temple. They become close. But Morgan’s purpose is not personal. Working under the aegis of the Priest of the Moon, a discarnate being, she seeks to connect herself to “the ultimate spiritual source, known to Qabalists as the Great Unmanifest, the formless power behind the fount of creation itself. This in turn relates to the great zodiacal tides of the precession of the equinox, whereby in the coming Age of the Aquarius the old gods will be coming back, after another manner. Her own part in this is to make the way clear for the realization of the divine feminine as part of the cult of the Great Goddess, who, as our Lady Isis, comprises all goddesses – of the corn, of the dead, of the sea, of the moon”.

Morgan needs Wilfrid’s help in performing a ritual that depends on an exchange of sexual energy without involving physical sex. He needs to be in love with her, or at least infatuated, for the ritual to work. But there is to be no relationship thereafter. Morgan is completely honest about this with Wilfrid, but he finds it too difficult to take in. After the ritual, and the great storm and destruction of the temple that follows, Morgan disappears. Wilfrid is left with a brief letter re-emphasising that there is to be no further contact between them. There is no forwarding address. Wilfrid falls to pieces.

But this is not the end. Morgan has scrupulously adhered to an ethic of reciprocity in work of this kind. She has subtly nudged events so that he makes a connection with a young woman – his secretary at the estate agency – and they marry. There are pragmatic reasons for this too. Molly needs to escape from a violent and chaotic step father. Wilfrid (now aged 36) needs to stop living with his mother and older sister; he also needs to sort out his post-ritual depression and alcohol problems. Marriage as a solution is enabled by Wilfrid’s domestic neediness and Molly’s compulsive care-giving, shaky emotional foundations for a life-partnership. Morgan’s contribution is to lay the ground work for greater possibilities. She has already arranged to leave her magically imbued sapphires for Wilfrid’s wife to be.

After their marriage, the newly weds move out of town to Bell Head, where Morgan’s caretakers had kept a small farm. Morgan’s temple is ruined, but they inherit her books and magical working records. These influences inspire Molly to start “talking to the moon”. She begins to take on her own priestess role. Wilfrid recollects: “it was all different here from the fort, and yet it was taking on a life of its own. There was more of earth and less of the sea than out on the point, just as there was more of earth in Molly than in Morgan; yet it was cosmic earth, and I remember that the Great Goddess ruled both moon and earth and sea. Molly would never be a Sea Priestess, like Morgan, but there was awaking in her something of the primordial woman, and it was beginning to answer to the need in me.”

At the end of the book, on a midsummer’s night, the couple light a fire of cedar, sandalwood and juniper. Such a fire is known as a Fire of Azrael, first prepared by Wilfrid when working with Morgan. It enables trance states and communication with the ‘inner planes’, especially if blended with moonlight. Molly receives an extended transmission from the Priest of Moon, and her subtle sexual energies are enlivened. For “the Astral plane is ruled by the moon and the woman is her priestess; and when she comes in her ancient right, representing the moon, the moon-power is hers and she can fertilise the male with vitalising magnetic force”. Molly initiates the consummation of the couple’s magical relationship. They have now received the touch of Isis and the gates of the inner life are open.

I experience The Sea Priestess now, on the third of three readings separated by many years, as a voice from long ago. In some ways it isn’t. My parents were born within a few years of the fictional Molly, and had nowhere near this sense of gender, sexuality or spirituality, let alone magic. I suppose my own sense of temporal distance is partly due to the dynamic evolution of her influence, and that of others like her, in successive generations – not least in the thirty years since I first read The Sea Priestess. If she now seems old-fashioned, it is a back-handed tribute to the creative power she helped to unleash. Before we think of her being old-fashioned even today, we have to ask ourselves: compared to whom?

(1) Dion Fortune The Sea Priestess Boston, MA & York Beach, ME: Weiser, 2003 (Copyright 1935 Society of the Inner Light)

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