contemplativeinquiry

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Tag: Welsh Bardism

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

IOLO MORGANWG: 3 RAYS OF AWEN

According to Kristoffer Hughes, the three ray symbol for Awen, as it appears today: “is mostly inspired by the efforts of one individual, a Welsh bard of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries called Edward Williams, who took the bardic name of Iolo Morganwg*”.

Hughes goes on to tell us something of Iolo’s story: “I touch briefly on the Awen-filled story of this remarkable individual, for it sings loudly of the power of Awen to transform, not just an individual, but the future. His symbol for the Awen has become directly associated in Neopaganism with Cerridwen, making an exploration of his influence a valuable exercise in our understanding of Awen in the modern world.

“Iolo Morganwg was a stonemason from South Wales, an imaginative, poetic genius who made elaborate claims of ancient documents and wisdom that he had discovered and preserved for the world to see. Blighted by ill health, he was addicted to the narcotic laudanum for over fifty years of his life, spending most of his days in a drug-induced state, and yet poems in their thousands fell from his frenzied mind onto scraps of parchment. He composed elaborate poetry, inspired prose, but falsely claimed that some of the poems were written by ancient bards. … And yet through all of the accusations of forgery and deception, Iolo dreamed something into being that those in the different streams of Celtic spirituality today, both monotheistic and polytheistic, are descendants of. He dreamed a new mythology into being and planted seeds that would gestate a profound wisdom in the future.

“In a time of great social crisis, he dreamed an identity for the Welsh that took as its foundation that the bardic tradition of Wales was a direct line to the ancient Druids of Britain, who he perceived as the true ancestors of the Welsh. He longed for his people to connect to the might and power that the Romantic movement imagined the Druids to express. And, in doing so, he deliciously imagined a new identity that the Welsh could be proud of: he blended fact with fiction, legend with history, myth with reality. His bewildering array of notes and journals continue to baffle modern academics who strive to make sense of this enigmatic figure.”

Reflecting on Iolo’s story, Hughes concludes that, “in a profoundly logocentric world where new thoughts and ideas were expected to be substantiated by manuscripts, Iolo simply invented a past that we, as the Welsh, could be proud of . … He carried the seeds of Awen and profoundly influenced a future he could not have imagined. In the twenty-first century, those drawn to the Cerridwen and Taliesenic mysteries (2) who may artistically express, understand, or wear the symbol of the Awen all carry the dream of Iolo Morganwg. He is testament to the Awen’s consistent stream and how it too changed its countenance to meet the needs of different people at different times. The period he occupied was a cauldron of new ideas, with the new era of bardic tradition in its infancy and occult fascination among the learned of the time increasing in popularity”.

(1) Kristoffer Hughes Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2021. See also my review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/26/book-review-cerridwen-celtic-goddess-of-inspiration/

(2) See also: John Matthews Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: Aquarian Press, 1991. It includes a complete English translation of the Hanes Taliesin (Story of Taliesin) and English translations of the major poems of Taliesin Pen Beirdd from The Book of Taliesin as well as other medieval Welsh and Irish material. In the Taliesin story, the three rays of Awen become three drops from the brew in Cerridwen’s cauldron).

*NOTE: Iolo Morganwg (=Ned of Glamorgan, his native county). In his own words, the Awen sign /|\ is “a symbol of God’s name from the beginning”. He goes on to say: “from the quality of this symbol proceed every form and sign of voice, and sound, and name, and condition”. It is when God pronounced his Name that “all the universe leapt together into existence of life, with the triumph of a song of joy. The same song was the first poem that was ever heard, and the sound of the song travelled as far as God and His existence are, and the way in which every other existence, springing in unity with Him, has travelled for ever and ever. And it sprang from inopportune nothing; that is to say, so sweetly and melodiously did God declare his name, that life vibrated through all existence, and through every existing materiality”. J. William Ab Ithel (editor) The Bardas of Iolo Morganwg: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of the Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 http://www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862, from notes and journals left by Iolo on his death at 79 years of age in 1826).

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/

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: 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)

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)

AWEN AND CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

A Contemplative Druidry (1) reader has asked me to say more about Awen, which had a chapter in the book. Introducing interview extracts in my Awen chapter, I wrote, “Awen is classically seen in Druidry as the power of inspiration, and in particular the creative force for poetry and prophecy. It is what transformed the boy Gwion – though not before further trials and transformations – into Taliesin, the radiant browed Bard. Many of the participants in this work uphold this tradition in its conventional form. Others seek to extend the traditional meaning better to express their own experiences and aspirations. Some don’t connect with Awen experientially and treat it as a convention – mainly as a shared chant, which brings Druids together”.

My self-criticism here is that the chant is itself an experience, frequently state-altering for both the chanters and in a sense for the space. I might have done better to say, ‘some don’t connect with it conceptually’. I see from my interview questions appendix that the Awen question was about meaning. If I did this work again, I would start with the sound, the feeling, and senses of occasion, and work out from those.

Pondering Awen afresh, I find myself drawn to deep human ancestry, and especially the early emergence of speech and music. These brought a new kind of identity: new experiences, new awareness, new feelings, new understanding, new forms of connection and solidarity – new worlds. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have subsequently developed creation stories linking origin with sound. In India, the phrase Nada Brahma tells us that God is sound/the world is made of sound. OM is the primordial sound form, the vibratory essence from which the universe emanates – and the universe needs to emanate only the smallest step (if any) to get to us. Kabir said, “if you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you” (2). A major philosophical school, Kashmir Shaivism, is referred to as ‘the doctrine of vibration’ (3). It talks of ‘spanda’ as “the primordial vibration at the root of all manifestation, a form of Shakti” (a term equally meaning ‘power’ or ‘goddess’).

Welsh Bardistry gives us Awen and the Taliesin story, which can be read as working with related themes, whilst diverting our main attention to the Bard as trickster/hero. In the old Gaelic world, we have the term Imbhas, equivalent to Awen, and a more touching story about the eating of the salmon of wisdom, in which the old Bard (as I read it) sets himself up to pass on the true nourishment to a promising youth. We also have the notion of the Oran Mor (Song of the World). Frank MacEowan (4) writes: “a conscious knowing of the ancient ‘music behind the world’ has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions. In the words of Stuart Harris-Logan, a Gaelic healer, scholar, and author of Singing with Blackbirds, ‘out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mor as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen’”.

Jason Kirkey (5), an associate of Frank MacEowan, treats ‘Oran Mor’ and ‘Divine Ground’ as synonymous both with each other and with David Bohm’s ‘implicate order’, in which the world of space, time and individual particles are enfolded into an undifferentiated wholeness that provides the holographic pattern (each part contains the pattern of the whole) by which reality unfolds. In Ireland, a sense of the Oran Mor could legitimately continue into Christian times. St. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (6) This greatly moved John Scotus Eriugena, the great Irish philosopher/theologian of the ninth century – the time of Viking invasions in north west Europe. In his commentary on the Gospel he says, “John, the theologian – ascends beyond all visible and invisible creation, passes through all thought and intellect, and deified, enters into God who deifies him … John, the observer of the inmost truth, in the paradise of paradises, in the very cause of all, heard the one Word through which all things are made … Therefore, most confidently he cried out, ‘in the beginning was the Word.” (7) True knowledge and experience of the primal Word are divinizing – a remarkable statement for a western Christian of the day. John Scotus had learned Greek at a monastic school in his native Ireland (then not an available option elsewhere in western Europe) and was familiar with neo-Platonist thought. Perhaps that and his indigenous culture together allowed an understanding that the Word calls us to recognize our own divinity.

Modern Druidry was Universalist before it was Pagan, and retains a willingness to learn from other traditions. I believe that we can use the wider cultural history I’ve identified to inform our sense of what we are invoking when we chant the Awen. This chanting is something which Druid contemplative practitioners share with other Druids. Our unique practice is the ‘Awen space’ that follows the chant. Like other Druids, we do not require people to gather together under the umbrella of a common cosmology. It is OK to have different understandings, and it is OK for us to change and develop our personal understandings over time. That said, I end this piece with a reflection about the broad intentions behind our inherited Celtic spirituality, to provide a cultural context for Awen/Imbhas and where they might fit. It’s from Frank MacEowan (8): “The ancient Celts … were … ever yearning to connect with divine inspiration (imbhas), and ever longing to live a life of beauty imbued with connection and spirit. We are also on this path, and the fulfillment of our collective task as a human community lies in the process of actualizing a deeper communion with these same life-affirming powers. Celtic spirituality is an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death. The ancient spirituality of the Celtic peoples has always been a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying). This vision is of a life ending in a wondrous death journey to a home we have all been away from. When death is really an experience of going home, what is there to fear?”.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert)

(3) Mark S.G. Dyczkowski The Doctrine of vibration: an analysis of the doctrines and practices of Kashmir Shaivism Delhi, India: Divine Books, 1987

(4)Frank MacEowan The Celtic way of seeing: meditations on the spirit wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(5) Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the spring: the ecology of Celtic spirituality San Francisco, CA: Hiraeth Press, 2009 (Foreword by Frank MacEowan)

(6) Holy Bible (authorized version)

(7) The voice of the eagle: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2000 ed. (Translated by Christopher Bamford, foreword by Thomas Moore)

(8) Frank MacEowan The mist-filled path: Celtic wisdom for exiles, wanderers and seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

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.

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