contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Welsh mythology

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/

PSYCHIC GARDEN: BLACKBIRDS

My wife Elaine and I have a blackbird pair, now with two fledglings, almost at our back door. They have created a precarious nest in a jasmine bush just outside. We have halted all clipping for the time being. Blackbirds have also appeared in Sophia’s garden, my Innerworld sanctuary and space for insight and healing.

The garden, which shifts over time, is now a place of midsummer twilight. It has a fountain at its centre. Water jets high into the air before cascading through a succession of bowls into a wide and shallow pool at the bottom. In the twilight, I find it hard to see clearly, though easy enough to hear. The perpetual movement of water makes its music. Otherwise, the garden is at first quiet.

I hear the blackbirds, two of them, without seeing them. This follows a visit in August last year, when there was only one. At that time, I wrote a post about blackbirds as birds of Rhiannon and other aspects of their place in Welsh mythology and modern Druidry: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/a-bird-of-rhiannon/

Shortly after writing the post, I discovered that Jean Markale, the sage of Broceliande, links the blackbird with Merlin, since merle is the French for blackbird and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s spoken language was French. (It was he who introduced the world to the name Merlin.) Without wanting to debate this derivation, I enjoy the sense of this common, plebeian bird, having such resonance and capacity. It contrasts with the image of the noble, highly trained predator – the merlin hawk – which I grew up with.

Somehow, through this discovery, I feel confirmed and affirmed as a civilian, rather than saint or sage, monk or magician. Those paths are fine, but not my own. Blackbirds are anchored in ordinary life. Yet they do sing at twilight, in ways that move and inspire us.

I take my seat, on the bench that’s offered, recognizing my entry into the fourth quarter of my life, with this lesson in mind.

(1) Jean Markale Merlin: Priest of Nature Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions (Kindle edition) Translated by Belle N. Burke

 

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

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.

POEM: TALIESIN

Poem by Ross Nichols, who founded OBOD in 1964.  I like his seamless interweaving of naturalistic, mythic and theosophical themes – because for him they are one integrated experience. For me the poem reads like the work of someone who needed to live it in order to write it.

Here the Fish enters

The world of dark water

Pre-birth waters

Waterworld Elysium

Lake Tegid and the magic weir.

Much does he grow,

Many his transformations.

Warm are the waters,

The dark waters of Tegid,

And they swiftly flow

Downwards as he grows.

Talisin is found in the weir:

Elphin finds him

In a bag of leather

Where the waterworld dams,

Where the womb-waters

Are falling terribly

At the weir of birth.

The entering fish

Was the spirit of Taliesin:

His transformations

Were the many souls and bodies of Taliesin:

Leading him gently, drifting him slowly

Into the bodily definition of Taliesin,

His bag of leather,

His separated skin.

And Taliesin, after his separated life,

His songs and his wonders. His challenges and his fame,

Shall enter again as a Fish,

Shall know again sufferings and transfigurations

And the waters of Tegid.

For Taliesin was ever upon earth,

Knew all things, suffered all things.

And Taliesin shall be

In many wonderful shapes,

A grain of wheat and a hare

Sown and running

While there are fields, and the spirit of men,

Leaping alive at a harvest,

Or silver in the waters of time.

This poem can be found in the collection Prophet Priest and King: the Poetry of Ross Nichols edited and introduced by Jay Ramsay Lewes: Oak Tree Press, 2001.

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.

BOOK REVIEW: STALKING THE GODDESS

jhp4ec2908d688eb_9781780991733_Stalking%20The%20Goddess_72Stalking the Goddess by Mark Carter was published by Moon Books in 2012 and is a critical examination of Robert Graves’ iconic The White Goddess. Carter has done a thorough job and I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject specifically, or in modern Druid and Pagan culture more widely.  He painstakingly examines Graves’ sources of inspiration, sources of information, working methods and conclusions. He also looks at the extraordinary impact of The White Goddess over the period since its publication in 1948, especially on the growing neo-pagan community – much of it surprising to Graves himself. Stalking the Goddess (a title I have to say I don’t much care for) is of course dependent on The White Goddess for its interest and very existence, so I find I can’t talk about the one without the other.

What was Graves doing in The White Goddess that mattered so much?

Firstly, he took up suggestions from 19th and earlier 20th century literature (The Golden Bough being the single major source) about a primal religion based on sacrificial kingship. He linked it to ideas of an early political matriarchy that pre-dated human knowledge of paternity and began to weaken thereafter. In bronze and iron age times, Graves saw Europe from Bulgaria to Ireland subject to struggles and migrations in which increasingly patriarchal warrior peoples put a steadily intensifying pressure on opponents who, whilst themselves less and less likely to have matriarchal political systems, nonetheless preserved conservative features like strong Goddess traditions, matrilineal succession, and a view of the feminine as representing sovereignty over the land.  He also followed writers like Charles Leland and Margaret Murray in understanding medieval witchcraft as an underground pagan tradition in conscious struggle with the fully Romanised Christian church as aggressively representative of a wholly comprehensive expression of patriarchy in both religion and politics.

Graves also suggested that, in Celtic lands, there was a second dissident group that survived well into the medieval period and indeed beyond.  These were the Bards, descendants of the Pagan Druids, preserving their secrets within often obscure poetry based on a little known or understood set of mythic references, and a magical system of writing, the ogham (itself with early origins in South East Europe). The ogham was not just a script, it was also a hand signalling system – and had its own set of magical correspondences, of which those with a group of sacred trees were the most potent.  The Bards as poets were in service to The White Goddess of the title. Graves believed that all true poets are in such service, whether they know it or not – citing more recent poets like Keats as an example. Graves placed himself in such a line, and used the inspired technique of ‘analeptic memory’ to extend his understanding when his sources didn’t give him all the answers he needed. He wanted to show that he was up with the relevant scholarship and that he could make a logical and evidence based case. But in the last analysis he wasn’t bound by these. He was (although he didn’t use this term) one of the awenydd, the inspired ones, not a philosopher or academic.

Carter’s contribution, in Stalking the Goddess, is the rigorous application to The White Goddess and some of Graves’ other work (for example The Greek Myths and King Jesus), of a critique which is itself now quite well known. Based on more recent (though not necessarily much more recent) scholarship than that available to Graves, it tells us that neither the approach of The Golden Bough, nor the view of matriarchy and its purported link to early Goddess worship, nor its overthrow, are supported by good evidence. Especially when dealing with pre-history (history before written records) modern scholars are tentative about what we can say that we know. There’s just not enough there for a powerful unifying story, partly at least because the evidence basis just isn’t suited to providing such a story, and partly perhaps because the actual stories may be much more diverse. In the case of medieval witchcraft, the available records concerning victims don’t fit the profile of Pagan Goddess devotees. In the case of Celtic Bards, the evidence shows ogham as an exclusively Irish writing system, created for the carving of simple messages, in use for a fairly short period in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. It may be that it was used, in a spirit of self-conscious antiquarianism, as a largely mnemonic device for the Bards of later centuries.  In terms of Graves’ reading of key works in the Welsh tradition – the Hanes Taliesin and Cad Goddeu in particular – Carter suggests that Graves “bent them to support his views”.

I am sure that this critique is essentially correct, simply because it is based on better information than the alternatives and argued plainly. I can’t of course vouch for every detail because I haven’t done any individual work. But I do have to recognise that Graves’ own approach involves a considerable element of dogmatic intuitionism and interpretative high-handedness. For me, in a context of advocacy, the latter characteristics weaken a case rather than strengthening it.

And yet … true criticality like this, using effective and ethical working methods, is its own kind of homage. Stalking the Goddess will not, and should not, demolish The White Goddess. It will help to keep it alive and rightly so.  When T.S. Eliot decided to accept The White Goddess for publication by Faber & Faber after several rejections from other publishers, he described it as “a prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book”. Yet he published it all the same. I for one am glad that he did. With that health warning from the original Faber catalogue, alerted to not taking The White Goddess entirely on its own terms, I am free to let it into my spiritual imagination. I can walk to my favourite spot at Woodchester (the old churchyard). I can stand in the avenue of yews, knowing that most of the ogham trees are in easy distance, and that Orpheus lies underground nearby, in the form of an early fourth century Romano-British mosaic. It was custom made for the villa on that site by a specialist mosaic workshop in Cirencester (Corinium) notable for its work on Orphic themes. Orpheus was from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace (once thought of as ‘Mount Haemus’). Graves thought that the ogham first came from Thrace, believing Orpheus’ dance of trees to be a “dance of letters”.  So here, now and in Woodchester is the lyricist who could charm animals, cause trees to circle dance, animate a new ship for a deep sea voyage, descend to the underworld and return, be torn to pieces by maenads and continue on as a talking head, uttering prophecies for Apollo. Rich themes for Romano-British people, perhaps also seeing resonances with their own native stories. Inspired and inspiring myth can survive any attempt to explain it, explain it away, or package it in overdetermined forms.

GWYN, GWYTHYR AND CREIDDYLAD: A STORY FROM THE OLD NORTH

This post reblogged from Peneverdant looks at the traditional stories of the northern British (especially in north west England and southern Scotland) and surviving material from these stories in later Welsh literature.

From Peneverdant

Cherry BlossomCulhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.

Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.

This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because…

View original post 2,230 more words

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