Elder Mother


{a continuation of Rhiannon’s Apples}


Elder Tree

Dark elderberries hang on twisted boughs
Unpicked and shrivelled,
Bare twigs twist to point the way
That turns upon itself a shadow veil
Shielding the world she is leaving behind
As she rides the grey mare
Fading to grey mist for a season
Seeking her fair form far away
Where he expects her, her shadow lord
Conjuring the woven ways
Through mists of his own making
Shaping a path through shapeless drifts
Each one receding through layers of world
Intricately dispersing
Wider to bring her to world’s end:
To not-world’s becoming.


Another watches her go as strewn leaves lie
On sodden forest floors
Bereft of shelter, mysteries
Of dappled green depth emptying.

Samahin Cover
Samhain Scene : from a cover for The Waxing Moon by Pat Blackmore






Author: Greg Hill

Awenydd/Poet, Cultural Critic

2 thoughts on “Elder Mother”

  1. I read this as bring about Rigantona/Rhiannon’s departure to the Otherworld more than the Elder Mother’s due to the grey mare. I have the sense here the ‘shadow lord’ who weaves the mists is the Lord of Annwn.

    If this is the case then there are parallels between the descents of Rhiannon to Arawn and Creiddylad to Gwyn. Arawn and Gwyn seem very similar and I intuit they may be different titles for the Lord of Annwn. I’ve not got that same sense of similarity with Rhiannon and Creiddylad in Thisworld – Creiddylad notably has never taken horse form. However I do get a similar sense of regality as I get from Rhiannon/Rigantona from Creiddylad when she becomes Annwn’s Queen.

    What’s your take on these overlaps?

  2. Way back, about forty years ago, when Rhiannon came into my life in a major way, I wrote the story which I entitled ‘Came the Grey Mare’ which you have seen. At that time I was working within a wiccan context rather schematically with a threefold goddess and a twofold god and names which had been given to them by the worshipping group. I had been moved by the portrayal of Rhiannon in the Mabinogi tales as, successively, a vivid embodiment of both the first and second aspects of that threefold goddess and was then inspired to write the story which portrayed her in the third aspect, as the Cailleach riding a grey mare (as opposed to the shining white horse ridden by Rhiannon when she appears in the first Mabinogi). I didn’t fully understand what I was doing at the time and the story more or less wrote itself, but it became more significant to me as time went on and when other things fell into place following a particularly powerful visionary experience. So the idea of Rhiannon in a Winter guise as ‘Elder Mother’ follows from my early experience of her in the guise of the Cailleach who was particularly associated with the elder tree just as the Mother Goddess was associated with the apple tree and the Goddess as Faery Queen with the hawthorn tree. So ‘Rhiannon’s Apples’ and ‘Elder Mother’ (which will now become a single piece) mark the passing of Rhiannon, as I would now see it, into the Otherworld. I used the illustration at the end of the post from cover of The Waxing Moon magazine in which the original story was published as it shows the god left behind in the desolated greenwood as we enacted it then in our rites. But what is new here is the god on the other side who, in the way I have shaped it, opens the mist paths for her, and this, as you suggest is Arawn or Gwyn ap Nudd working from Annwn.

    Pulling together apparent contradictions, different names, and emphases from different stories can often be confusing. But only if we confuse the stories with the myth they embody. W. J Gruffydd, in his study of the Rhiannon stories, identifies two ‘myths’ which contribute to the stories he examines. But perhaps these ‘myths’ are themselves stories, versions of the myth told by different tribes drawing upon a common mythic tradition. Gruffydd identifies one ‘myth’ in which Tigernonos and Rigantona are the parents of Gweir and another in which Vironos and Matrona are the parents of Maponos, and suggests that these two parallel myths became mixed up as they embody the same mythic pattern which was re-told using elements from each in the Mabinogi tales where the story was also superimposed on folklore traditions about Pryderi in Dyfed. In one of these myths we have ‘Divine Father’ and ‘Divine Mother’ as the parents of ‘Divine Son’ and in the other we have ‘Divine King’ and ‘Divine Queen’ as the parents of Gweir, whose name is less clearly significant. But if the parents in each case have identities both in Thisworld and in the Otherworld, and if the stories about their coming and going vary but also include a relationship between the Otherworld woman as Queen in both worlds, then the identity of the Otherworld king may also be fluid in the original myth and so confused in later stories based on it. Gruffydd proposes that Pwyll and Arawn are the same Otherworld character and that Pendefig Dyfed/ Panadaran Dyfed are the same Thisworld character but that their identities have become confused, and in the case of Pwyll and Pendefig Dyfed, fused in the Mabinogi story. I think trying to sort all his out into a logical sequence of changes over time as Gruffydd does is a hopeless venture, but there is no need to do this as the mythic pattern which underlies the events on the various stories is what matters more than precise family relationships as they would be on the model of Thisworld.

    Another story about the coming and going of the Otherworld Queen is that embodied in the Scottish ballad of True Thomas or Thomas the Rhymer. In the medieval romance from which the ballad seems to stem, she comes in May on a shining white horse and carries off Thomas to the Otherworld. The description of her coming bears a striking resemblance to the description of the coming of Rhiannon in the Mabinogi. But in the romance, when she returns to the Otherworld with Thomas, her appearance is changed to a hideous form and he has to go with her in that guise, though she regains her beauty when they arrive. Early stories about an old crone who turns into a young woman when embraced, kissed or married are often part of the narrative of Earthly kings marrying the Goddess of Sovereignty. These stories take various later forms as they enter the literary tradition, including one from Chaucer. But they seem to embody a mythic pattern of the Otherworld Queen transformed with the coming of of Winter and returning to the Otherworld to come back again as a young woman in Spring. These include the need for the recognition of the Goddess in her Crone state by the Thisworld king. They also include a story about the competition for the Goddess between the king in Thisworld and the king in the Otherworld, sometimes with the Otherworld king capturing the Goddess to make her return or visiting Thisworld to father a child on her by some sort of trick involving the swopping of identities. This ‘competition’ is also sometimes represented as being between two divine suitors for the Goddess and this may be the original mythic form of the story. What I think we need to do is to give the myth a form in a story that reflects our own needs, our own relationship to the gods and embodies their presence in our lives and so records the way the paths between the worlds open and close for the gods, and for us. So I don’t think we need to be too closely tied to the precise content of the stories we have inherited, but rather to identify the mythic pattern they embody and the presence of the gods as characters in the stories. Names are more difficult though because they may attach to personalities that we have direct experience of, but who also have other names, and we have to test which one gets a response. But if they are not significant for us, or the character they attach to doesn’t have a resonant personality, we don’t need to use them but may want to reserve judgement on their significance; if they attach to a character whose identity is fluid across different stories, but who seems to be the ‘same’ character, then I think that’s an uncertainty we can just learn to live with. Unless, of course, the god(s) tell us otherwise!

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