contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Sioned Davies

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

A BIRD OF RHIANNON

“They went to Harlech, and sat down and were regaled with food and drink. As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and began to sing them a song, and all the songs that they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet the song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years”. (1)

The three birds are blackbirds, known as the birds of Rhiannon. They are at least partly of the Otherworld, for Rhiannon is a potent deity, linked to the moon and sovereignty. In the story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2), the giant Yspadadden Pencawr demands that the hero Culhwch capture Rhiannon’s birds to entertain him on the night before his death – a death which will immediately follow his daughter Olwen’s marriage to Culhwch, to whom his kingship will be passed. Yspadadden describes the birds as “they that wake the dead and lull the living asleep”.

Hence, in The Druid Animal Oracle (3). The blackbird is understood as “a being who can send us into the dreamtime and who can speak with discarnate souls”. The Oracle also points out that “Blackbirds are fond of rowan berries, one of the sacred trees in Druid tradition. …. Eating these berries, the blackbird is able to connect us with his healing song to the regenerative powers of the Otherworld and the Unconscious”.

In How Culhwch won Olwen, a blackbird also figures as one of the oldest animals who need to be consulted in a quest to rescue the Mabon, the divine youth of Brythonic tradition, from imprisonment. As the Jungian scholar John Layard (4) says, “all these figures conduct us back into the past, which is the equivalent to psychic depth … into the heart of the mother-world below, the matrix out of which all life grew up and the ever-renewing source of it”. The blackbird is in fact the youngest and most accessible of these helpful animals, “functions of instinct that assist if we are humble enough to ask their help”. For Layard, the blackbird is the bearer of “a maternal spirit-message”.

In the apparent world, my wife Elaine and I share our back garden with a pair of blackbirds, and sometimes chicks, for some months of the year. They are here now. They do sing both at dawn and dusk, with the twilight song for me the most notable. They have chosen a slightly hidden space and our willingness to have a relatively unkempt garden is partly for their sake.

I have recently been visited by another blackbird, also in a garden. This garden is both familiar and unfamiliar, known and not known. It appeared to me in a state of mild to moderate trance, and resembles the Sophia’s garden I used to work with as an innerworld nemeton. But much has changed. Sophia’s garden had a link to a temple and was well kept. Generally, it was a noonday kind of place, bright sun flashing on the fountain at the centre, illuminating the water. There were rose beds surrounding it, and fruit trees trained up mature brick walls. Alternatively, it was a place of magical silence in black night, lit up by full moon and stars. Now there is no temple. The fountain and rose beds, whilst still in place, show signs of reduced maintenance. It is twilight, liminal, with limited visibility.

A blackbird appeared and sang to me in this space, meeting me on mutually safe and accessible ground. Its message was one of availability and reassurance. I returned it in a spirit of openness and friendly affirmation. And then I was back in everyday reality. Now I simply wait, tentatively expectant, open to further connection.

  • Sioned Davies The Mabinogion Oxford University Press, 2007 The second branch of the Mabinogi
  • Sioned Davies The Mabinogion Oxford University Press, 2007 How Culhwch won Olwen
  • Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid animal oracle: working with the sacred animals of the Druid tradition New York: Fireside, 1994
  • John Layard A Celtic quest: sexuality and soul in individuation Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, 1985

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)
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