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


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Rhiannon’s Apples

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Apples shed into the shade of the tree
Such is the season’s trade
Between sunshine and shadow
Cast across light’s pellucid glow

As the Grey Mare passes, September’s spent
Fruit grounded in October’s
Splendour, her reins passed over
To crooked fingers of Elder Mother.

…/|\…

Manawydan fab Llŷr

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Manawydan’s Glass Door – water colour by David Jones

Visions and Propositions

Manawydan waits in shadow, biding his time, watching. I visualise him cloaked and hooded, looking as if over my shoulder, yet also withdrawn to a liminal space where a portal opens into the Otherworld.

Was he there when Rhiannon came? The tale* does not tell it, only that she came to claim Pwyll for a husband. Did Arawn watch from the other side?

Was one watching when her child was taken from the cradle by her side? Or when she waited by the horse-block for Pryderi to return?

The tale* tells that Pryderi, grown now, went to Ireland (or was that Annwn?) with Manawydan and his Brother Brân for the sake of their sister Branwen (but there was also a cauldron).

They returned with the head of Brân (just seven in all from a great army returned) and Branwen who broke her heart.

The Birds of Rhiannon sang to them then and time was still until the door – which Manawydan reminded them should not be opened – was opened; and they went to the White Mount to bury the head – Brân’s head – that had kept company with them when time did not flow.

Manawydan, alone now in Thisworld of the siblings of Llŷr, he who was “wise of counsel” as the Black Book has it**, took counsel from Pryderi to go to Dyfed and be with Rhiannon.

So they are wed but he watches Pryderi and then Rhiannon go through the enchanted fort into the Otherworld (he counsels caution – another door best not opened? – but will not hinder) and must wait for his chance to release them and restore the land.

So he waits until it is time to act. Then he acts. Like a gatekeeper opening and closing the Portal he watches – and enables – the coming and going of those who would pass and those for whom passing is a rite of passage.

-*-

Commentary

Consider the Triad, referred to in the Mabinogi, about the Three Golden (or noble) Shoemakers, one of whom is “Manawydan Son of Lludd” in one of the manuscripts of the Triads, though “Son of Llŷr“ in another. Rachel Bromwich says that this transference is common so that Llŷr & Lludd are interchangeable***. As Lludd is cognate with Nudd should we therefore regard Manawydan as the brother of Gwyn ap Nudd?

If Manawydan is a son of Nudd (Nodens), Brân and Branwen are also children of this god. By which perhaps we should understand ‘of his family’ or even perhaps ‘expressions of his nature’? Family relations between gods are never quite the same thing as those between people.

Beli Mawr is said to be the father of Lludd and Lleuelis****. But also in legendary history of Caswallawn (i.e. Cassivellaunus) leader of the Brythons who opposed Julius Caesar in his brief incursion into Britain in 54 bce. Many of the early kings of Wales traced their lineage back to Beli Mawr via Cunedda. Clearly here we are in territory where myth, legend and history merge and the difference between gods and ancestors is either confused or irrelevant, depending on your point of view.

But if Manawydan is an offspring (however understood) of Nudd, and shares an identity (however understood) with Gwyn, the identification of these two ‘sons’ of Nudd as Thisworld and Otherworld faces of a god, on either side of the portal, seems to cohere.

§

*‘The Tale’ here is the First and Third branches of The Mabinogi

** In the poem ‘Pa Wr yw’r Porthor?’ (Which one is the Gatekeeper?)

*** Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Third Edition, p. 419 & p.421)

**** In the medieval Welsh tale Cyfranc LLudd a Lleuelis

Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

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Available HERE

This is the third collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers chronicling her dedication to the Brythonic god Gwyn ap Nudd and it takes her quest to interpret and re-present his mythology to deeper levels of significance. It also defines her path as an awenydd, engaging in visionary explorations and written evocations of her discoveries. The book is divided into a brief introductory section followed by six longer sections, each taking the reader through a different historical period. A major source for any study of Brythonic lore is the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen. This tale is often drawn upon here, in particular the episode in the tale where Arthur kills Orddu “the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid”. The episode provides an imaginative frame for the chronology of Gatherer of Souls, spanning an immensity of time between the end of the last Ice Age to the present. The work opens with the migration into Britain as the ice begins to recede, led by a wise woman and her daughter, an already well-established matriarchal succession of witches who then take residence in the cave which they continue to inhabit until Arthur brings their line to an end. The closing piece of the book is a chilling present-day visionary confrontation in the cave on Nos Calan Gaeaf when the bottle containing Orddu’s blood is poured out and Arthur is confronted and defeated to bring the age of his imperium to an end.

If the killing of Orddu provides a mythic underlying theme for the volume, the role of Arthur in her death and his opposition to Gwyn ap Nudd, the implied father of Orddu and all her ancestors, provides the foregrounded mythic focus. The view of Arthur as a usurper of the old ways and conqueror of the gwiddonod – the giants, witches and other denizens of the world he brought to an end – is a theme that emerged in Lorna’s previous collection. It involves reconfiguring the heroic view of Arthur and viewing him as an archetype of the absolute ruler. So, in the final contemporary section of the present work, he returns “to make our country great again” which is about as up to date as you could hope to get in portraying a view of the Arthurian type in our own time.

As readers are taken through the successive ages covered by the work they will encounter much material gleaned from a knowledge of Brythonic lore that has been internalised and imaginatively re-shaped rather than simply recycled, much as the medieval tales in Welsh re-shaped Brythonic inheritance in a range of stories in prose and in verse to keep it alive for us to inherit. That lore tells not only of the emergence of Arthur as a power figure but presents Gwyn ap Nudd as a character who has retreated into the shadows, giving us only tantalising glimpses of his nature and the power he maintains in “keeping all the devils of Annwn from destroying the world”, as the Welsh tale has it. Lorna’s quest, then, is not simply one of discovery but also one of actively bringing Gwyn back into focus and out of the shadows to be recognised as the gatherer of the souls of the dead and Lord of the Otherworld.

The project includes re-telling stories from the Brythonic past, particularly those located in what Welsh medieval culture thought of as ‘The Old North’, the lands of Northern England and Southern Scotland where Brythonic culture made a last stand before retreating to Wales where the legends and myths were kept in the original language to perpetuate them in memory. So there is a substantial account of the story of Myrddin, not the ‘Merlin’ of later Arthurian stories but the figure on whom he was partly based, or with whom he was confused, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This Myrddin ran wild in the Forest of Celyddon along what is now the border country between England and Scotland. Myrddin’s ‘madness’ when he flees to the forest after The Battle of Arfderydd, fought between Rhydderch and Gwenddolau, between christian and pagan, had also been incorporated into the Life of St Kentigern, but is reclaimed here as part of the narrative of the shift away from the old ways and the old gods to the new world which became medieval christendom.

It is true that this process began far away from Britain in Constantinople in the eastern part of the divided Roman Empire, when the emperor Constantine embraced christianity in the year 312 of the current era and, with more force, by later emperors such as Justinian who made christianity the official religion in 380 and Theodosius who began to actively suppress what he called paganism in an edict of 391. But the western Empire was slower to follow this change and by the time it was widespread in the West the Romans were leaving Britain, so the drama was played out over a longer period both within elite Romano-British culture (which Arthur represents) and within native Brythonic culture, further complicated by the arrival of Anglo-Saxon and Norse invaders who themselves underwent their own transition from paganism to christianity as time went on. This marks out Britain as a particularly conflicted arena as the emerging christian world view pushed for dominance. Figures such as Arthur become emblematic of the changes taking places while Myrddin, originally a victim of those changes, later becomes incorporated as Merlin in the Arthurian ethos.

So re-claiming what has been lost, and what was transformed, is a necessary part of a re-connection with the age of the old gods in our own time when spiritual allegiances are shifting and the character of Arthur as an opponent of that old order can be re-evaluated to restore the focus on Gwyn ap Nudd. This is Lorna’s project which also involves an animistic view of the world reflected in some of the work collected here. ‘The Shield of Rheged’, for example, is ingeniously addressed by re-telling the story of one of the ravens who were depicted on it and relating the image to other raven stories in the Brythonic canon. In more recent times, the folklore of Lorna’s own area is retold in stories such as the eerie tale of ‘The Lady of Bernshaw Tower’ in which a woman who might be regarded as a spiritual descendant of Orwen and Orddu, but who also has a negative ‘other’, shape-shifts and rides with The Hunter. The final section of material set in the 21st century contextualises Brythonic sources in modern terms and focuses on what we have to do now to bring about “the ruins of Arthur’s Empire and clear the way for the next world”. If this is an ambitious and demanding task, the writings collected here display a personal commitment and an imaginative vision that makes it possible to think it can succeed.

Spider

Working in the garden today. Spiders in webs everywhere gleaming in the soft, clear light of summer moving into autumn, including this splendid orb weaver (Araneus diadematus) hoping to catch some of the many small insects still on the wing.

 

Rhiannon’s Roses

image

This second flowering has come after the drought
It is for her they bloom
In the late light of the year
On spiny stems or on her altar.

Between scythe and budding shoot …

 

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I have recently been reading a posthumous collection of Welsh-language verse by Tony Bianchi: Rhwng Pladur a Blaguryn. I was friendly with Tony when I was a post-graduate student and he had a fellowship in the same university and I have had intermittent contact with him, both professionally and informally, in the 35 years or so since then. So it was a shock to hear of his death last year. Tony was a Geordie from North Shields who, like myself, came to university in Wales and never left. He learnt Welsh sufficiently well to be able to write and publish both poetry and prose in the language. The posthumous collection that I have been reading includes poems written in Welsh cynghanedd metres. Some are very compact and highly charged englyns which manage both to be good examples of the formal requirements of this verse form and also very personal expressions of his characteristics and his concerns. The one that gives the volume its name goes like this:

Rhwng plader a blaguryn; rhwng afal
a’r anghofio sydyn;
rhwng y gwaed a’r angau’r gwyn;
o wynfa i bla: trwch blewyn.

Which I venture to translate, without the supporting force of the cynghanedd, like this:

Between scythe and budding shoot;
between an apple and the sudden forgetting;
between the blood and the pale death;
from paradise to plague : a hair’s breadth.

So it was for him: a vibrant life suddenly ended after a brief illness. That ‘hair’s breadth’ between life and death crossed in what seemed like an instant, the poem capturing in the brevity of its concise form the moment of transition. Finding those perceptions embedded in the tight formal structure of an englyn, opening out from the cynghanedd links which hold together the sequence of images leading to the final half line: ‘trwch blewyn’ with its shiver of liminality, is a miraculous revelation.

So the Awen fell on a scion of the Old North living in modern Wales, allowing the expression of an insight that was so characteristically his own, carrying his living breath, contained in an apparently restricting verse form which one of its exponents has described, paraphrasing Dylan Thomas, as ‘singing in chains’*, but which here seems to wear those chains lightly, releasing rather than imprisoning his words.

The book also contains longer poems, including an account of his daughter’s wedding which is both tender and amusing in a way that expresses Tony’s own character so eloquently. It will remain for me a living record of his voice, contained by death but released by his words and so free in the world he has left behind him.

*Singing in Chains by Mererid Hopwood (Gomer, 2004)
Rhwng Pladur a Blaguryn Tony Bianchi (Barddas, 2018)

Cynghanedd and Multi-Culturalism

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Vikram Lyengar

Multi-culturalism is sometimes seen as a melting pot: cultures all mix together and the result is a universal, globally similar, amalgam which encompasses all. But people also value diversity. Visiting a place and finding it is the same as where you came from seems to defeat the object of travel. I am reflecting on these things after attending an evening of Welsh and Indian poetry interactions. Poets from Wales and from India have been involved in a project to see how each can learn from, and benefit from, the other while also acknowledging the value and distinctiveness of each of their traditions. The poets visited each other’s countries and held sessions to explore the particularities of their artistic practices and how they could compare and contrast them, and of course translate each other’s work.

The latest instalment for two of these poets culminated in an evening of activities including a traditional Indian dancer who had been working with them. The dancer, Vikram Lyengar, spoke of his use of music as a base rhythm over which the steps of his dance were made. This was compared to the rhythmic pulse of a line of verse, arranging the syllables of each line around the accents of the main stresses, shortening or lengthening them for emphasis. The poets, one writing in Bangla (Bengali) and the other in Welsh cynghanedd metres, sought to emulate this in their verse and the dancer separately sought to to dance the rhythms of their verse.

It was difficult for me to evaluate the way Sampurna Chattarji wrote the rhythms of the dance in her verse in Bangla, or how Vikram Lyengar danced the work of either poet, though his performance was both impressive and enjoyable in its own right. But I was fascinated by the way that Eurig Salisbury transformed the dance steps into a series of cynghanedd lines across some englyn forms chosen because of the correspendence between the required syllable count and the number of steps he had to ‘translate’ in each case. It couldn’t be said that the englynion produced said anything significant in terms of their meaning. But they did seem charged as forms with the energy of the exercise and the cross-cultural frisson by which the Welsh verse patterns were enlivened without in any way diluting their distinct character and mode of expression. Reflecting on the evening, it seems to me that something very deep was achieved. But, as often with such things, its significance remains elusive, even mysterious.  As it should be.

In Search of Sulis

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The reconstructed Roman Bath

The Roman town of Aquae Sulis, now the modern city of Bath, has accumulated many layers of history since it was settled by the Romans, within 30 years of their invasion of Britain, around the hot springs sacred to Sulis and re-dedicated by them to ‘Sulis-Minerva’. I went there recently to see what traces of Sulis I could find beneath the accumulations of successive occupations. As well as visiting the Roman Baths and Museum, I had also arranged to join a small group tour with one of the museum staff below the areas open to the public down to the level of Roman settlement now underneath the museum and surrounding streets. The famous Roman baths which are the main magnet for the many tourists who visit the site are in fact a nineteenth century reconstruction in the Roman style. Even in Roman times these were a public bathing area using water from the sacred springs but separate from the temple of Sulis-Minerva. The oldest part of the surviving building over the springs is in fact the so-called King’s Bath, named for Henry I. The medieval builders apparently had no knowledge of the Roman levels beneath as centuries of silting from the springs had overlain what was left of them.  Some traces were still visible to the Anglo-Saxons as the poem from those times known as ‘The Ruin’ apparently testifies:

This work is wondrous; fate fashioned its fall
Cement smashed; the work of giants come to grief.
Roofs have tumbled, ruinous towers,
Ravaged by frost ; roofs fallen
….

Although it is possible for visitors to walk around the recreated ‘Roman’ bath, the King’s Bath can only be viewed through windows and openings in the stone arches. Here the spring waters can be seen bubbling up into a pool within the derelict and empty medieval space and running off at one end towards the ‘Roman’ bath. This is the nearest that it is possible to get to the spring itself.

King's Bath
The Medieval structure around the Sacred Spring

On the way through to these baths, the museum has a reconstruction of the temple of Sulis-Minerva based on recovered fragments and limited excavations of the site which partly lies beneath the building which houses the museum but also extends out beneath adjoining buildings across the street and towards the medieval abbey situated next to the baths. Excavations beneath these buildings, all of which have their own protected conservation status as historically important later structures, have therefore been restricted.

The tour beneath the museum took us through cellars and along tunnels full of fragments of original Roman structures and over the bases of stone pillars now embedded in the uneven floors. Here we were standing at ground level of the temple beneath the street from where the voice of a busker singing above could be heard. As hard as I tried, it was difficult to imagine myself in the Temenos, the sacred precinct of the temple, before the shrine of Sulis-Minerva. That evening, when the crowds had abated, I stood in the street above where, until the early twentieth century, there was a fountain fed from the spring waters, and had more success locating myself imaginatively in that place.

Of the original Spring of Sulis we have little knowledge. The whole area around the site, in a loop of the River Avon, would have been a reedy marsh. There is evidence of Iron Age settlements on the nearby hills and the remains of a gravel-laid causeway approaching the springs have been discovered. So we do know that access to the site was ensured although no other building work has been found from this period. Perhaps the spring itself was sufficient for Iron-Age devotees visiting the site. If there are now too many layers of history over the original site for any aura of its numen to remain, what then of Sulis today? She remains as ambiguous as the so-called ‘Gorgon’s head’ that adorned the apex of the temple of her coupling with Minerva. Are these the snakes of Gorgon hair associated with Minerva’s protecting shield? And if so why is the face apparently that of a male? Or are they, instead, the swirling waters around the springs? This guardian of her site, as the site itself, remains a mystery for us to fathom in the depths of her waters and the layers from beneath which her divinity emerges.

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