A Sely Fool

When they talk about Dewi they say he is ‘half way to fairyland’. Of course, it’s just a saying, like he is ‘only half there’ or ‘in a bit of a daze’. But it’s truer than they know. The thing about Dewi is that he has an instinctive talent for finding the paths to Faery. But it’s not something he recognises or is fully conscious of in any way. So he goes off to the woods and wanders along an enticing path and finds himself on he borders of Faery, and sometimes strays across without knowing where he is or what he is doing. Then he comes back – but part of him is still there. Because he doesn’t know how he got there, he doesn’t know how to return. A more proficient path walker might see the way, prepare the approach, and close off the ways behind when coming back. Or might have a helper to show the ways in both directions. But somehow Dewi evaded both knowledge and assistance. He just seemed to be able to step through the veil, but without really seeing anything on the other side or knowing what the way he felt about it meant. So part of him always lingers there and he walks through the everyday world doing everyday things with only half his mind on what he is doing.

If he knew how to write poetry it would no doubt be inspired. If he could play a musical instrument his playing would be enchanting. But he can’t do these things. Sometimes he sings, if given the chance, and the song has something about it that sounds like it comes from elsewhere. But where? Dewi couldn’t say. So he goes about doing odd jobs here and there, just about finding a place for himself in the world. Once he would have been called ‘sely’, the old word having the spice of something holy and blessed about it. But now the same word is ‘silly’ and that is without any depth or even any sense of being dangerous. It’s just trivial.

So it is with the attitude of the busy world to those who appear to wander the byeways of life. There is no time for silliness. There are those that can come and go, that can inhabit both worlds, that can don a cloak of twilight and steal away from the world’s busy-ness for a while, and then come back to its constant business, its blindness to the shallowness of its concerns. They are not themselves blind and are aware of the distant presence of otherness as they do the world’s bidding efficiently enough, while always conscious of the more profound bidding that calls from somewhere that is remote from the world and yet as near as breath.

Dewi knows little of that – of the ways of the world he knows, though not how to accord with their demands; and of the ways to Faery he knows something, but not articulated or made fully conscious. But as time goes on his nearness makes it more and more the place of his daily repose and he is less and less able to do what the world demands of him. So people think of him as a fool, out on the edge. And he is. So it can’t be long until he tips over and Faery takes him for one of its own.

A Sunken Lane

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One place I like to go is a pathway that dips under trees into a wide furrow. It is a world of itself, separate from the open woodland and fields that surround it. In winter it is often wet and boggy underfoot, with rivulets of muddy water, and it is difficult to pass through without wellington boots.But today when I went there, though the going was soft, it was passable. On cloudy days in summer, and for much of the winter, only a little light penetrates even when the leaves are off the trees. But today the Sun was out and bright shafts of sunlight cast a clear liquid glow through the gaps and dappled the leaves overhead with flickers of dancing green.

Then The Spirit of the Place seems to hide, not furtively but withdrawn back to his element of dampness and shadows. I sense him watching, not unhappy but making a natural retreat from penetrating sunbeams, from the glitter in the leaves. At other times when I walk through and linger, savouring the presence of an intense gloom it seems that I am in a semblance of the Underworld, somewhere far removed even from the thin light of a December afternoon.

But not today as the Sun streams down the hillside and filters through the mesh of hazel, thorn and briar and down into the deep trough of the lane, leaking like rainwater into the pits and runnels of the ground where, for a brief season of midsummer, grass can grow. And I can go confidently through with a light step, not thinking that the slough of the floor will prevent me. So the Spirit watches as I go and I acknowledge him, shifting sideways to a shady spot before stepping back into a pool of light, and on towards the shining portal of the opening where the path rises again onto the open hillside.

Gods in the Shadows

In the bland megalopolitan light
where no shadow is by day or by night
be our shadow


So wrote the artist and poet David Jones in his prayer to ‘The Tutelar of the Place’. To live with the gods is to live in a world of shadows, depths, mysteries. The opposite is a world where there are no shady nooks, hidden places, recesses; a world of hard surfaces and exposed spaces. Such a world does not exist, as hard as humans have tried to create it. Though many do live in such a world, lit by “the bland megalopolitan light” which banishes the natural darkness of night, a world constructed of the flat planes of our buildings and our roads. It is a conjectural world as much as a constructed world. Imagined as an ideal, realised imperfectly as a fact but dominating the imagined spaces around us.

Are the gods real? They are more real than this world we have created, as substantial as it appears to be. The world does still retain its deep places beyond the shallows of urbanity. Not just in leafy glades and misty hollows, but in oily puddles where labyrinths may be formed by coloured streaks, and in windswept streets where messages from the Otherworld may emerge from the tatters of torn scrap of newsprint. There are ways of seeing that reveal the world to us in different ways and what the mind’s eyes see depends on how we look. If we should choose to see them the gods reveal themselves – like the shadows that go with us as companions through the world.

It is not that the gods are absent from our shaped world, a world they are part of as much as we are. All creatures shape their world, make it different because they are in it. So, too, the gods. Consider the tale of the Enchantment on Dyfed in the Mabinogi.The land is transformed into its raw, natural state. It is still there, but there are no people in it, or any of the things that a landscape with people has in it. It is unfamiliar, unhomely. When the Enchantment is lifted it becomes homely again. Rhiannon, who has her being in the Otherworld, returns too. In our homely world she validates what we share (and this, I think, is the deeper meaning of the ‘Sovereignty’ theme). But she is also unhomely, uncanny, other – carrying significance from what is under, beyond, though also infused in our familiar world.

To try to make a world without the gods in it is not only to banish the unhomely and uncanny. It is also to banish their opposites. It is to make a world that is soulless, not only in the loose, general sense of being without depth and significance, but also in the more literal sense of losing touch with that which imbues the physical body with a sense of identity and meaning. I thank the gods for my shadow, even at Midday when the Sun takes it from me, for I know he will not keep it and will make it grow long and stretch it out into this mysterious world, mingled with the shadows of the trees, as afternoon leans into evening.

The Spirit of Poetry and the Gods

From the manuscript of Cormac's Glossary
From the manuscript of Cormac’s Glossary


Turning from the Brythonic to the Goidelic, the analogue to the awenydd would be the fili. Such analogues are always in need of qualification and never exact. The Welsh term ‘bard’ covers some aspects of ‘awenydd’ in medieval usage, but is also a more general term that can simply be translated as ‘poet’. So too ‘fili‘. But if the medieval Welsh bards can be seen as descendants of the druids in terms of their function, the process of transition and the change in emphasis of their role is by no means clear and in some senses involves a considerable displacement of context and status. This to some extent explains the need to create a protean identity for the bard as sage and prophet such as was embodied in the figure of Taliesin as indicated in other posts here.

It may seem that in Ireland the process of transition from druid to fili is clearer and the overlap in function between the two better documented. But most scholars are of the opinion that the process, as seen through christian eyes and then re-mythologised in literature and commentary, makes it very difficult to see through the layers of interpretation to an authentic picture of the pagan past. Such early texts as the ‘Cauldron of Poesy’ and the references to the role of the fili in Cormac’s Glossary suggest that they practised visionary and prophetic arts in much the same way as the awenyddion as recorded by Gerald of Wales.

Cormac’s Glossary identifies three essential attributes of a fili:

(a) teinm laedo (illumination of song) which is the mastery of the craft, the realisation of the vision or, possibly simply the knowledge required to be a fili.
(b) imbas forosnai (the manifestation which enlightens) which is inspiration, visionary abilities, divination and prophecy such as attributed to the awenyddion in Wales.
(c) dichetal di chennaib (chanting or incantation) involved with the ability to give voice eloquently and fluently to what is divined. Later simply presentational skill.

The Glossary asserts that St Patrick abolished two of these but left the third in the repertoire of the fili because as it did not involve offerings to demons or the adoption of divine power. Such ascriptions of the attributes of the fili and the objections to them from christian orthodoxy are repeated with variations throughout the medieval period. The effect is both to define a magical and a prophetic practice and at the same time to assert that it has been superseded by the rites of the church. It both describes what is forbidden and salaciously sensationalises it for added effect. In Wales the role was typically shifted onto a poetic alter-ego such as Taliesin. In Ireland it was also projected back onto the mythological hero Finn who was also credited with acquiring the three attributes of the fili after sucking his thumb when cooking the salmon of divine knowledge for his mentor, much as Gwion did with Ceridwen’s brew before he was transformed into Taliesin.

When gods become heroes, when legendary bards become prophets, when druids becomes bards or fili, all sorts of things get lost, mixed up or added in to the new identities. The parallel process of fictional portrayal and clerical excoriation also adds layers of complexity. Consider how things were closer to the end of pagan culture in the Roman Empire. Following the adoption of christianity by the emperor Constantine in 306, continued by his successor Constantius, the emperor Julian attempted to reinstate paganism. Worship of the old gods had not ceased, especially in the west, but the empire was now ruled from Constantinople in the east where christianity had become established. The effect of withdrawal of state support for the temples meant that observations had become lax and Julian, in his exhortations to the temple priests, is on record of requiring them to promote the worship of the gods rather than acting as agents for curses commissioned by individuals. Already, then, the priests of paganism were being denigrated and seen as agents of the dark arts. It is easy to see how, with the reintroduction of official christianity and the eventual suppression of paganism, this limited (but always prominent) aspect of roman paganism became the chief attributes of what were regarded as its remnant practitioners.
Later christian commentators like Gerald and the author of Cormac’s Glossary may never have actually encountered these practices. But they were already the legendary attributes of druids and described as received wisdom rather than from experience. Bards who wished to adopt the aura of such powers as part of their poetic personas, or those who re-told the exploits of Finn and Taliesin out of the remnant mythologies, could recreate the lives of the gods, heroes, sages and otherworld inhabitants either as hero tales, legendary history or in the personas of prophets, bardic oracles and inspired poets and even, in another entry in Cormac’s Glossary, as the embodiment of the Spirit of Poetry.

So do the gods live, transform and re-create themselves in our stories. Do we tell them or do they tell them through our story-telling art which is their gift to us? Whatever is the case it is clear that, however much other mythologised figures such as Patrick might forbid, banish, abolish or attempt to restrict such elements of the visionary arts, it was never effective even in his judgement of it.

MIDSUMMER

jwort

Hypericum perforatum -*- St John’s Wort


The longest day, and we went
into the mountains to see it through.
The shallows of the river were dry
so we sat for the feast of Midsummer
on grey sand and shingle and only
the deeps of the river ran swiftly
in a narrow channel in the shade of leaves.
We lingered there till the day was spent.

It was open season and hunting weather
so we stalked flowers in grass and heather,
St John’s Wort had leaves with translucent dots
and petals edged with a beading of spots –
small suns of the mind to hallow the day
and keep from time his passing away.

*****



Gerard, in his Herball, describes St John’s Wort as having “many small and narrow leaves which if you behold betwixt your eyes and the light, do appear as it were bored or thrust through in an infinite number of places with pin points. The branches divide themselves into sundry small twigs, at the top whereof grow many yellow flowers, which with the leaves bruised do yield a reddish juice the colour of blood.”

Rhiannon


A mare rides through the enchanted day, she is wildness,
uncanny, something out of twilight in the light of the Sun
enchanted, our eyes are turned away from the world we know
but as she turns to us, her turning is an embrace, a calmness
dissolves the vision of horse and a woman stands there.
We are undone by the sight of her and everything she is:
Evanescent Horse, Endless Summer, Shining Goddess.

The First Rose

rose

Waiting for the first rose
For Rigantona
And the summer

After the rush of bluebells,
The too-transient apple-blossom
After the late spring squalls

And now the springing leaves
That green the woods
With deepening summer shade

Still I wait for the garden rose –
Its bud swelling to ripeness –
To open and to offer

The grace of long summer days
And balmy summer nights
At her dedicated space

Once again to her as always
As the season blooms
Around her altar.
 

EPONA and Horses

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Photo by Carole Raddato

The worship of the goddess EPONA is generally thought of as being centred on Gaul though there are a few records of dedications in Roman Britain. There is a single example of a bronze statuette of EPONA from Britain which is now in The British Museum. It was purchased by a French collector somewhere in England, possibly Wiltshire, and came to The British Museum as part of a collection purchased in Paris in 1868. The statuette is about 7.5 centimetres high and features her sitting, but not on a horse as is most common, or on any other identifiable support,though she holds a yoke to identify her connection with horses and also some ears of corn which is another common feature of her depiction. On either side of her are ponies, a mare on her left and a stallion on her right, each face the corn sheaf. The statuette is thought by the Museum to have been part of a chariot fitting.

Although associated with horses Epona was a goddess of fertility and of the journey through life. Miranda Green also suggests that some depictions of her holding a key indicate her function in guiding the passage to the Otherworld. So where does the connection with horses come into this? It has been pointed out that the area of Gaul where her worship is most strongly attested is also an area where horse breeding was prevalent and so a goddess of fertility would therefore be associated with the fertility of horses. This may be so but it is an argument about social economics rather than the essential nature of a goddess. Looking at her wider provenance it is also significant that she was worshipped by calvary officers in the Roman army and there is the incidental reference in Apuleius which tells us that bouquets of roses were offered to her in stables. These are all sources from the Roman period when we know she was one of the array of deities acknowledged in the late empire with a feast day of 18th December assigned to her.

What would be interesting to know is the nature of her worship before it was incorporated into the Roman world. There is also the question of RIGANTONA as one of her manifestations in Britain, resulting in the medieval form of her name RHIANNON in the medieval Welsh tales in the Four Branches of Y Mabinogi. We know that several Brythonic tribes featured horses on their coinage and such archaeological evidence as the well-known white horse at Uffington suggests that horses featured in Iron Age devotional practice. But we don’t know if we can take the names Epona or Rigantona back that far, or even if these earlier Iron Age peoples specifically regarded the horse as a goddess. But by the Roman period it is clear that Epona is not seen as a horse but, rather, always depicted in association with horses, either riding one (usually side-saddle) or having some equine trappings about her. The corn sheaf is an equally common feature of her depiction. Her survival into medieval folklore and romance sets her astride her horse and stresses her Otherworldly nature making her not so much a devotional subject as an active player in the cycle of fertility and the traffic between Thisworld and the Otherworld. So are the stories of the gods told in literature in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages.

Going back to that statuette, it does seem to embody the idea that she takes human form while the appearance of horses of either sex facing each other across the corn sheaf on her lap encompasses both aspects of fertility and abundance. She has a yoke on one side of her (or is it, as Anne Ross suggests, a snake?) and a patera for offerings on the other. And yet her name is formed from the Brythonic word for horse – ‘epos’ together with the suffix ‘-ona’ signifying divinity. Clearly she is not, literally, to be thought of as a horse. But her horse nature is more than a simple matter of association. This is attested both by historical and personal testimony. It is yet another example of the need to merge the frames of the literal the perceptual and the mythical in order to find a language (visually or in words) to address or speak of the gods. It’s something we now find very difficult to do. ‘A horse -v- Not a horse’ gets us nowhere. To be able to hold both propositions at once approaches a necessary way of seeing. But it is at some axis across this one that we really need to be envisioning our perceptions of divinity.

Gaulish coin
Pre-Roman Gaulish Coin

Aengus Óg

harper

A distant sense of Aengus Óg
No more than knowledge of this god
Is brought to bear upon my mind

And yet I hear a nearer sound:
A harp elusive on the wind
So close that I can hear the strings

Could it be for me they sing
Like birds in the early summer dawn
Or the sigh of wind through bending grasses,

Or do I merely hear what passes
On the breeze for others to perceive?
Perhaps, but then a listening ear

Is also there, a curious stare
Wondering who might be hovering
At the edges of the whispered speech

And so I wait a turn to speak
And, if invited, say my piece
As yet unsure how to approach this god.

Of Folklore and Myth

Rhiannon yn CysguIllustration by Margaret Jones

It is often said that faërie and folk tales contain remnant myths, the significance having been forgotten while the form remains. This is sometimes true, but I think not always. When such tales contain mythic material it is often quite apparent rather than obscure. But folk tales are as likely to contain elements of everyday wisdom, old social customs and, perhaps more significantly,  insights into our inner lives. It is in the latter case that the distinction between mythic and non-mythic becomes difficult to discern.

While some of the tales that have come down to us originate in collected oral lore, many more have undergone a process of literary production and changed through a series of written adaptations. Where these are simply people recording versions of traditional tales it might be that this is no different from the changes or nuances oral tellers might introduce for particular audiences or to suit changing times. Basic story elements and motifs were often linked together to allow open-ended adaptations and tales of varying length.  But the practice of weaving different stories together into a longer literary production was widespread during the Middle Ages and is not entirely absent from later literature. Here, even if the original tales remain intact, their context and the effects of shaping by more sophisticated literary devices integrate and overlap what had previously been kept distinct and linked only with connectives.

In the First Branch of the Mabinogi tales there is an episode where Rhiannon is falsely accused of murdering her own son who has in fact been snatched away in the night. The women who were supposed to be watching him smear Rhiannon with blood from a puppy while she sleeps  and leave the bones about her as evidence that she has devoured her own child. Like other episodes in these tales, this one has parallels elsewhere in folk and faërie narratives as well as in more obvious mythic material. Mabon, Son of Modron, is said to have been taken from his mother “when he was three nights old” in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. Reading the implications across to the closely related Mabinogi tales, this contextualises the relationship between Rhiannon and her son with that between Modron and Mabon, whose names are later versions of Matrona and Maponos. The mythic context of a divine son of a divine mother is therefore unmistakable. But the broader setting in this tale of a wife who is falsely accused of murdering her child occurs more widely in folk narratives and in the content of faërie tales even when its mythic context is less obvious. Not only does the woman lose her child, but she is maligned and has to undergo humiliation or punishment before her child is eventually returned to her.

We can construe this in mythic terms too, but underlying the symbolism of the seasonal cycle this is one of the deeply embedded themes of folk narrative across many cultures which take on significance in different ways when told within particular cultures. Then they take on resonance and power, as if their significance is potential and dormant until they are enacted with other elements of universal folk narratives and the potential is realised. Like the gods they inhabit psychic space but manifest themselves in physical space in particular forms in particular places and take on identity in the stories we tell.

So as well as embodying mythic themes the universal motifs of folk narratives also contain elements of deep soul stuff, keys to personal journeys, initiatory experiences and perceptions of otherness. Sometimes they are simply agencies for other significant events in the story. So with Rhiannon’s ‘humiliation’ at the horse block and the eventual restoration of her son by Teyrnon all of which follows from this accusation, supporting the mythic content and opening the way to it.

Consider, too, how the same theme is used incidentally in this way in Grimm’s tale of the Six Swans ( and its variants such as the Seven Ravens). Here six brothers have been turned into swans and the only way their sister can restore them to human form is to sew a shirt for each of them out of Star Flowers (Stitchwort?).

Rie_Cramer_GrimmsFairyTales_1927_TheSixSwansGrimm’s story illustrated by Rie Cramer

But she must also remain silent for the six years it will take her to do this. While undertaking this work she is discovered alone in the forest by a young king who marries her in spite of her unwillingness to say a word to anybody. She, too, then has her children snatched away and is falsely accused of killing them but cannot defend herself so is condemned to death. The tale concludes as follows:

When the time had elapsed, and the sentence was to be carried out, it happened that the very day had come round when her dear brothers should be set free; the six shirts were also ready, all but the last, which yet wanted the left sleeve. As she was led to the scaffold, she placed the shirts upon her arm, and just as she had mounted it, and the fire was about to be kindled, she looked around, and saw six swans come flying through the air. Her heart leapt for joy as she perceived her deliverers approaching, and soon the Swans, flying towards her, alighted so near that she was enabled to throw over them the shirts, and as soon as she had done so, their feathers fell off and the brothers stood up alive and well; but the youngest was without his left arm, instead of which he had a swan’s wing. They embraced and kissed each other, and the Queen, going to the King, who was thunderstruck, began to say, “Now may I speak, my dear husband, and prove to you that I am innocent and falsely accused;” and then she told him how the wicked woman had stolen away and hidden her three children. When she had concluded, the King was overcome with joy, and the wicked stepmother was led to the scaffold and bound to the stake and burnt to ashes.

The episode has differences of detail but a clear similarity of form with the Rhiannon story. If the mythic significance of this is less obvious it does touch something deep in its references to transformation across species and the working out of a number of folk tale motifs, including that of the falsely accused wife which is simply the last of a series of adversities which are resolved in the final scene.

So, too, with Rhiannon when her son, now named Pryderi (‘care’, ‘anxiety’) is restored to her and she is restored to her proper place in the court. But here is a difference. In the mythic tale it is necessary that the restoration is complete:

Pryderi, son of Pwyll Pen Annwn, was raised with care as was proper, until he became the most gallant youth and the handsomest and the best skilled in all worthy pursuits of any in those lands.

But in the folktale the human dimension of incomplete resolution prevails. The little touch of one unfinished shirt resulting in one brother retaining a swan’s wing instead of an arm suggests that, for us, it never quite works out so neatly. As with the gods, so with us; but imperfectly so.