Please download the course details PDF here: The Magic of Meaning 2016
Please download the course details PDF here: The Magic of Meaning 2016
Autumn 2016 course.
This autumn I’ll be holding a new online course. It will cover most of the new research I’ve been putting together this last year, including new comparative texts from English and European history. As always we will be taking a detailed look at The Four Branches of the Mabinogi and its related tales, including the Tale of Taliesin and Culhwch and Olwen.
The course will included some recorded lectures and 12 live online seminars spread over 12 weeks. Students will have a choice of attending seminars on either Tuesday or Thursday evenings, beginning September 20th and 22nd respectively at 7:30pm (UK time).
The price of the course including all materials is £120. If you would like to book, please get in touch. A PDF of the course details can be download here: The Magic of Meaning 2016
The Magic of Meaning
Introduction to the Autumn 2016 course.
I had never been satisfied by general interpretations of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Most scholars have seemed reluctant to view the tales as myths even. Most of the modern research published, no matter how useful, seems to say more about current academic values than it does about the text itself.
As a result, a few years back I began looking at what people in the past thought of their great narratives, their traditional tales and myths. What I discovered was that even as far back as the Roman Empire, myths were not only sacred tales about gods, but were regarded as multi-layered and symbolic texts that needed to be interpreted if they were to be understood. This is how it was put by the 4th century Greek philosopher Sallustius:
. . . to wish to teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.
In keeping with his Classical training, Sallustius believed the hidden truths of myth were revealed through what he called ‘philosophy’, a way of perceiving underlying patterns, concepts and themes not immediately apparent in the surface narrative of a tale. Sallustius is implying the symbolic philosophies preserved in myth could make the incomprehensible universe meaningful, and give adepts a clear place in the vast order of things.
Alongside this early appreciation of the symbolic nature of myth was a similar tradition that saw storytelling as a way of teaching moral truths. The Old Testament for example contains several allegories, as do other Christian texts. But the allegory, or instructive symbolic tale, wasn’t a Christian invention. It’s likely to have been a common element of many oral traditions, known throughout the ancient world as a tool for teaching young minds how to think, how to look beyond surface details to the heart of a tale’s meaning.
The Four Branches share some similarities with allegories. For example, in some medieval allegories we find characters that personify certain human traits, such as Folly or Virtue. Similarly, in The Four Branches the name of the very first character, Pwyll, is also the Welsh word for the human qualities of discernment, deliberation, wisdom, caution and care. A more modern equivalent term may be mindfulness. There are also peculiar, symbolic events that are described without explanation, the suggestion being that they contain what Pwyll himself calls ystyr hud, or ‘magical meaning’.
In an oral tradition such as the one that gave us The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, interpretation would likewise have been a natural response amongst audiences. There were no peer reviewed journals, no guides to linguistics or indexes of comparative literature. Very little was written down, and what was written was only available to a very few. Instead, medieval audiences would have interpreted the tales from within the context of their own native lore, that slowly evolving body of traditional knowledge that preserved very ancient ideas and attitudes.
But for us today, getting access to this wider body of oral lore is difficult. Our modern culture is undoubtedly far removed from that of our ancestors. All we have as proof of this older culture of oral lore is to be had in medieval writing, and within those pages the oral tradition could only sound as an echo. Yet by comparing these medieval texts with The Four Branches, we can begin to tease out the oral threads that connect them.
Having spent several years studying and comparing medieval tales, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of them contain different versions of the same basic set of ideas. But those ideas are never explicitly stated; as Sallustius describes, they remain hidden, intentionally esoteric. Guessing at those grand ideas, grasping for that unity of vision and meaning, can only ever be done with the imagination, as has always been the case.
The forthcoming course considers the tales as sources of symbolic meaning, and focusses on those characters and events that offer easiest access to the depths contained in The Four Branches, perhaps the only myths of ancient Britain to survive intact.
Apologies for the long delay in finishing this series on the Twrch Trwyth. We’ve moved house and had another baby in the last six months so time has been limited. But more to come over the coming year, including a new course this autumn.
Perhaps the best Welsh tale to compare with the hunting of Twrch Trwyth is the episode in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi where Gwydion follows a wandering sow to discover the transmigrated soul of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. In both tales, swine of some kind is pursued, and both pursuits focus on the transmigrated souls of noblemen. Lleu, having been struck by Gronw’s cursed spear, turns into an eagle at the moment of his death and flees. Twrch Trwyth was originally a prince turned into the giant boar as punishment by God. This Christian explanation on the Twrch’s fate suggests there is an older pagan belief behind the tale, one that medieval Christian culture found distasteful. There are plenty of other examples in Celtic myth of humans changing into animals and vice versa, suggesting it was a widespread belief before it was challenged by the Church.
The Twrch Trwyth cannot be hunted without Gwyn ap Nudd within whom God placed the nature of Annwfn’s demons so as not to bring the present world to ruin.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this is at odds with how Annwfn is described in other Welsh medieval texts. In later folk tradition Gwyn is another variation of the pan-European Wild Huntsman, responsible for hunting the souls of the dead at Halloween. His role as a Welsh psychopomp and guide to the Celtic paradise would have made him an obvious target of Church censorship.
Regardless, the Twrch is in many ways another soul pursued by Gwyn ap Nudd, and this gives us a few clues as to the symbolic undercurrents of the tale. The Twrch was once a human prince, and although not dead in the normal sense, he is certainly a creature of the otherworld. In many ways, both the Twrch and Lleu are in Annwfn at crucial points of their journey. As Gwydion sings Lleu (in eagle form) down through the tree, the englynion of his bardic enchantment suggest the tree is in the otherworld. In the case of the Twrch Trwyth, Welsh myth often associates Ireland with the otherworld and crossing the Irish Sea as passage to and from that magical place (see the Second Branch and Preiddeu Annwfn for comparison); in this sense, the Twrch symbolically emerges from Annwfn as he comes to shore at Porth Clais and returns to it as he escapes off the tip of Cornwall.
But what does this all mean? On a purely symbolic level, both Lleu and the Twrch are noblemen who have been transformed not only into animals, but into symbols of the warrior elite. In medieval Welsh bardic poetry, both boars and eagles are metaphors for brave and noble warriors. Also, transforming mortal men into such eternal symbols was one of the main functions of Welsh bardic poetry. In that respect, one possible interpretation is that these symbolic animals represent a heroic ideal that transcends the death of the individual. Countless generations of violent noblemen may die, but the essence of their nobility is preserved in the symbols of Welsh myth and poetry.
On the level of religious belief, both tales may well preserve pre-Christian ideas about reincarnation. In a simple sense it’s natural to see in boars, eagles, wolves and bulls those very qualities that have been so highly praised amongst warrior elites the world over. If an aggressive fighter was to reincarnate after his death, then why not as a fierce boar, his nature perpetuated in the next life? If the oak tree upon which Lleu is found is a symbolic conduit for the transmigration of the soul from human to animal and back again, then there may also be a suggestion that souls could survive death by incarnating as special animals. With the right magic, they could be coaxed back into human form, reincarnated once more just as Gwydion sings the eagle of Lleu’s soul down the different cosmic levels of the otherworldly oak tree.
On the symbolic level and on the level of belief, ensuring the continuity of a particular kind of ethos appears to be the most important thing. Nobility and martial skill is preserved for the future in both interpretations. This ties the tales all the closer to the Welsh court bards; it was their task to ensure the continuation of noble values beyond their own lifetimes and those of their aristocratic patrons.
Good St David’s Day to you all. A little gift to celebrate:
In the autumn of 2015 I invited local poets living close to the Leri River to contribute folk verses about the river for me to sing and record, and here are the results. I’ll be releasing 3 songs on March 1st, three on March 7th and the last three on March 14th. Then there will be a CD available on April 22nd at the gig in the Black Lion, Tal-y-bont.
Download the first three songs for free here.
Many, many thanks for everyone who contributed, the poets, the choir, the artist, and especially Siwan and Fal.
This creative work was funded by Cymerau.
This week I visited the British Museum in London to take a look at their exhibition ‘Celts: Art and Identity’. Having studied many of the artefacts that were on display, it was always going to be a real treat for me. I arrived in great anticipation: I was finally going to see the Gundestrup cauldron, The Snettisham Torc and the many other fabulous treasures I had only so far seen in photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed in this respect. The objects themselves are well worth a visit. Sadly, the interpretation of Celtic identity left me feeling rather frustrated.
I originally started this blog to discuss Celtic myths, to open them to deeper readings, to help others appreciate them as much as possible. But for once I’m going to try and dispel a myth, in particular the myth that lies at the heart of this otherwise amazing exhibition.
The narrative created by the curators was based on the idea that over the millennia Celtic identity has been very ‘fluid’, and this word crept up consistently throughout the presentations. From Classical references to exotic northern tribes to a style of modern art, the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have been used for many different things and in many different ways, making them terms that are apparently ‘fluid’ and quite nebulous. As a result, the exhibition claimed that the “concept of a fluid Celtic identity” was a “powerful political tool”, the suggestion being that it simply served a superficial nationalism and in reality didn’t have much validity as a description of a historical people. What the curators failed to grasp was that the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have regularly been used to mean very different things, but usually with no regard to what the Celts themselves have to say on the subject.
Regardless of its apparent instability, the term ‘Celtic’ has been used in a remarkably consistent way at crucial points in time. The ancient Greeks used it to describe a particular group of people. Then, many centuries later, the Welsh scholar Edward Lhuyd (1660 -1709) used it to refer to the descendants of these same people. So it was used as a name for the same group of people in the first millennia BC and then again two millennia later. Nothing fuzzy or mysterious there. After Edward Lhuyd, ‘Celtic’ was used to designate a language group and resulted in the idea of the Celtic nations, those folks who were on the same branch of the Indo-European languages family tree. None of this is contentious. ‘Celtic’ is still used as the name for the same people the early Greeks were talking about.
It’s true that the Celts for most of their history didn’t call themselves Celts. But neither did the Germanic peoples necessarily call themselves Germanic; that doesn’t lead us to make claims about the ‘fluid’ nature of the English identity. Far from being so nebulous, the Celtic speaking nations have preserved historical identities that are so far some of the oldest in Europe. The apparent instability of the term ‘Celtic’ in an English context doesn’t mean that what it refers to is itself unstable. Celts exist independently of whether the English language can fully grasp them or not. The Welsh have always known that they are descendants of the early Britons, who were themselves descendants of the people the Greeks called the Celts. Again, this isn’t contentious. The Welsh identity is rooted in a very old idea that has remained coherent for a very long time. There is nothing ambiguous or ‘fluid’ about it. Yes, Celtic identity has changed, but it must be asked: relative to what is Celtic identity ‘fluid’? Relative to English identity? Relative to Germanic identity? Are these in any way less fluid?
The confused thinking of the curators was seen at it’s worst in their giving so much attention to the Celtic ‘Revival’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The assumption was that this strand of mainly English culture was a reflection of Celtic culture. This is a bit like claiming that Disney’s Sword in the Stone is an accurate retelling of the Welsh myth of Arthur. They are related, one is obviously rooted in the other, but neither are they the same. Disney’s film is a filtered, simplified version of the myth adapted for the modern Anglo-American audience, whereas the early Welsh texts preserve the original cultural phenomena. The Celtic Revival is just the same. The actual Celtic culture of the time was alive and well in the towns, villages and farmsteads of Celtic speaking communities, but was quite different to what the English speaking bourgeois assumed it to be. At the time, the Celtic Revival served to confirm an English stereotype, and did very little to preserve what remained of the Manx and Cornish languages, or reverse the steep decline of Welsh, Irish, Scotts Gaelic and Bretton. The exhibition is simply perpetuating this same ignorance.
Whereas the quasi-pagan fetishes of English Romantics were given a place of honour at the exhibition, very little space was given to the actual history of the Celtic nations after the Roman occupation. There was no hint of how remarkably coherent the Celtic cultures were throughout the medieval period, and how many early, pre-Christian elements were preserved by the medieval Celtic tradition. In contrast, the modern Celtic Revival was sighted as proof that modern Celtic identity was a fluid and unsteady phenomena, indeed nothing more than a romantic reinvention of the past. Which it was, but one that took place almost totally within an English context! In this respect, the exhibition did more to reaffirm an English attitude than it did to actually reveal Celtic cultures in an English setting, something that’s clearly still desperately needed.
The ancient Celtic art on display at the museum is stunning, but the exhibition itself is strung together with the same nonsense that has caused so much confusion between the English and their closest neighbours over the centuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of visitors came away thinking that bards and eisteddfodau were invented by Welsh Victorian romantics, or that the Anglo-Saxons simply ‘emerged in Britain’ (I assume they popped out of a hole in Kent), or that the Celts were dreamed up by renaissance scholars. The English curators’ unconscious attitude to their Indo-European cousins is akin to how many old people are treated these days: their memories are unreliable, they’ve lost a few marbles, and because they can’t be trusted we’ve confiscated the family silver.
What the curators failed to acknowledge is that those of us still living in Celtic cultures are quite capable of defining our own national identities, diolch yn fawr iawn. The Celts are not a senile culture of self-deluding romantics, we are alive and well and doing things in the world right now. Let us speak for ourselves, we may then believe that the museum is actually British in the full sense of the word.
The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is a tale within a tale, a floating narrative that came to rest in the written version of Culhwch and Olwen. It’s quite likely that it was often told alone as well as being used as part of larger narratives. The boar hunt was deemed an important part of Culhwch’s story, and as we shall see, it sits well with the other mythological elements of the tale.
Some of the themes of the boar hunt are related to the kinship ritual of dressing and cutting hair described in the first part of this series. One such theme is that of nobility: the Twrch Trwyth is a prince of noble birth incarnated as a magical boar; it’s his special scissors and comb that are ultimately used to carry out a ritual of ennoblement that also marks Ysbaddaden’s death, in turn the event of Culhwch’s ascension to sovereign power. The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is an essential step in Culhwch’s growth in nobility.
There is another aspect to the boar’s relationship to the young hero. Twrch Trwyth is a young nobleman incarnated as wild swine, and he is hunted for the benefit of another young nobleman whose incarnation is also deeply entwined with swine:
And from the hour [Culhwch’s mother] became pregnant she went mad, and did not go near any dwelling. When her time came, her senses returned to her. This happened in a place where a swineherd was tending a herd of pigs. And out of fear of the pigs the queen gave birth. And the swineherd took the boy until he came to court. And the boy was baptised, and was named Culhwch because he was found in a pig-run.
Culhwch’s name commemorates this association with swine, roughly translating as ‘pig-run’. Twrch Trwyth and Culhwch could be considered kindred spirits, young noblemen who’s natures are entwined with similar mythological animals. Yet there isn’t a perfect symmetry between the two either: boars and pigs are different kinds of swine. One is portrayed as wild and destructive whilst the other is domesticated and civil. Twrch Trwyth was the beast that laid waste to southern Ireland, while Culhwch is all nobility in pursuit of love.
But we shouldn’t automatically assign a negative value to the Twrch, particularly as aggression and violence weren’t frowned upon in medieval Welsh culture. Far from it, they were celebrated as the defining features of great and worthy heroes. The warrior ideology that’s personified in figures such as Arthur, Urien, Owain and others is one of the hall marks of aristocratic praise poetry. At times, the Welsh bards compared their warrior patrons with boars, and sometimes even the Twrch Trwyth himself was used as a praise-worthy comparison. In light of this it may be better to see both swine-heroes as complementary, rather than antagonistic. The Twrch, suffering the fate of hunted beasts and warriors alike, faces violence for the further the ennoblement of his more civil brother.
It’s wiser to consider Culhwch and the Twrch Trwyth as representative of the same aristocratic values, with the former embodying the values of civility, love and sovereignty, and the latter war, martial prowess and wild violence. All of these values were ancient aspects of Welsh nobility, and in combination both Culhwch and the Twrch illustrate all of them through their actions. It’s also fitting in many ways that violence itself is finally sacrificed for the benefit of civility, the hunted animal nourishing the nobility that pursues it.
The early Arthurian myth of the Welsh, of which Culhwch and Olwen is one of the main examples, is preoccupied with the ideals of violence, civility and nobility, those very elements of Celtic culture that informed the later medieval concepts of chivalry. Culhwch’s quest in literal terms is to marry the woman he was destined to love, but in mythological terms it also describes his ritualised initiation into nobility. Conflating an initiation into nobility with the pursuit of love is clearly a winning strategy if the intention is to sell such high-minded ideals to your young people, particularly the boys. Coupled with this idea of nobility as love is the idea of the new replacing the old, and that the nobility of the past (whether that be personified in a brutish giant or a magic boar) can be reclaimed by new generations, especially in their pursuit of love as a road to sovereignty.
In the next post I’ll take a look at how this symbolic sequence corresponds to Lleu’s transformation as an eagle in the Fourth Branch.
Tonight is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Wales, and is an ysbrydnos, or ‘spirit night’ when the dead walk abroad under the starry skies. Halloween is the most recent tradition associated with this night, known at one time as ‘All Hallows Eve’, but there were traditions that came before it, such as the old Celtic festivities of harvest time. As with Samhain in Ireland, and indeed for many of the early peoples of Europe in general, this was the time when the ripened fruits and crops of late summer and autumn were celebrated as the abundant wealth of the land. Alongside such celebration there would have naturally been a time of reflection, particularly as this fulfilment of life’s fruition also marks the moment when the seasons turn and all growing life prepares itself to pass through the death of winter. This is the natural time to acknowledge mortality and consider what may come after the cold season.
Its probably for this reason that tonight is also the time when Gwyn ap Nudd hunts the land, when even the living can be taken up as souls to join in his eternal hunt, urging on the magical hounds as they chase through the darkness. This happened to one Ned Pugh, a famous Welsh fiddler whose mournful refrains were heard one Nos Galan Gaeaf transforming into the bright call of a huntsman’s bugle. Having entered a cave on that particular Halloween, he wandered deep into the belly of the earth from which he was never to return alive, but was instead taken up as chief huntsman to Gwyn ap Nudd, exchanging his fiddle for a horn.
A similar account could be given of Arawn from the First Branch of the Mabinogi. One of the very few allusions to Arawn in Welsh folklore concerns a ghost that was often heard declaiming Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn, a little verse that roughly translates as ‘Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the wait for Arawn.’ Was this the soul of someone long dead still waiting to be called by Arawn to join the otherworldly hunt? We shall never know for certain, but the other similarities between Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd would lead us to think so.
One of those similarities is the connection both these figures have to the instincts of physical desire, all those visceral and carnal urges that are fired by the hunt. Arawn was the one who tempted Pwyll with his beautiful wife, and Gwyn was a dangerously jealous lover of Creiddylad according to the medieval redactors of Culhwch ac Olwen. Gwyn was also responsible for tempting Collen with illusory food when the saint visited his phantom palace atop Glastonbury Tor. All of these temptations are echoed in an English version of the Magical Huntsman, a figure of superstition that Shakespeare found so intriguing he brought him to life, quite ridiculously, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.
“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Some time a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You’ve heard of such spirit; and well you know
The superstitious idol headed old
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for the truth.”
Despite the paucity of material concerning Herne, Shakespeare’s use of him in the play chimes with much of what we already know of Herne’s Welsh cousins, all three being hunters with supernatural qualities that are associated with fairies and the dead. Not unlike the spirits and sprites of many lands it appears that Herne can cause disease amongst cattle, and his moaning and clanking of chains is not unlike the restless behaviour of the souls of the dead.
But it may also be worthwhile considering Shakespeare’s actual use of Herne in the play. To cut a rather long story short, Falstaff, a lecherous wastrel with expensive tastes, attempts to seduce two married women by employing various deceptions. After realising his unsavoury intentions, both women take their revenge by tricking him into dressing up as Herne the Hunter for a promised night of pleasure. While waiting under the Windsor Oak sporting a pair of horns, Falstaff works himself up to a froth waiting for the two wanton wives to come and ravish him. But instead of his anticipated satisfaction he is accosted by a gang of children and adults in fairy costume whom he believes to be real spirits of the otherworld come to punish his mortal trespass (he obviously went for the trick, not the treat). These cruel fairies and sprites ridicule him and eventually put him in his place, all of which Falstaff accepts with rather good grace.
Lechery and excessive desires in general are a theme that Shakespeare explores throughout the play, with Falstaff being the embodiment of aristocratic excess. In contrast to Falstaff’s debauched appetites, through various mentions and allusions, Shakespeare subtly evokes the Order of the Garter, a royal order of nobles chosen by Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own patron. This order was supposedly one of high-minded restraint and discipline, as stated in their motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, which literally translates as ‘Evil be to him who thinks evil.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor could well have been written to feature in an event held at the royal estate of Windsor attended by Queen Elizabeth and her Order of the Garter. This would explain why Falstaff’s fate in the play appears to be a realisation of the order’s motto. His bad intentions result in a bad outcome where he finds himself dressed in the guise of none other than Herne the Hunter.
There are several hints in The Merry Wives of Windsor of folk traditions concerning the unfortunate figure of the cuckold. When a man’s wife had been unfaithful, some communities would ridicule the couple and in particular the husband by placing horns on his head, thus marking him out as a cuckold, a man who shares his wife with other men. In this way the wearing of horns was associated with a lack of fidelity. But whereas these later traditions have the cuckold as a figure of derision, Shakespeare, in his own magical way, may well have been evoking a much older idea concerning the horned hunter.
There are several points of comparison between Shakespeare’s Herne and Arawn from the Mabinogi. Both figures are party to an exchange of places, Falstaff with Herne and Pwyll with Arawn, both mortals become the god and both gods are the magical huntsmen in their respective regions. Having taken on the external form of the god, both mortals come to meet the fairies of the otherworld, an experience that went better for Pwyll than it did for Falstaff. Pwyll showed restraint and self-control in the bed of Arawn’s fairy queen, where Falstaff was seen for the lecherous toff he was and punished by the ‘fairies.’ One succeeded in wearing the mantle of the otherworld, while the other didn’t. Pwyll was learning his lesson, as was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although in a markedly different way.
If this was Shakespeare’s understanding, and who could deny one of the greatest bards of the English language such an insight, this horned figure was far from the object of ridicule and derision that he appeared to be on the surface. Falstaff’s failure was to be deaf to what the Huntsman had to say about the sowing and reaping of one’s desires. Pwyll, on the other hand, was listening well, as his name suggests.
As one of the more important texts in the study of Welsh mythology, Culhwch and Olwen contains elements drawn from the ancient body of oral lore that the Welsh inherited from their Celtic ancestors. One such element is Arthur’s hunting of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth.
As early as the ninth century, this hunt was part of popular folklore, having found its way into the Mirabilia, the list of British wonders that was attached to the Historia Brittonum. The tale itself is very similar to others found in the Welsh and Irish traditions, another sign of its ancient roots. All of these variations involve magical boars or pigs and their journey through a landscape, usually being hunted or followed.
The Twrch Trwyth himself is a man transformed into the shape of a giant boar, a version of another common motif. Some of the better known transformations of humans into animals (and vice versa) are found in Irish myth, such as the transformations of Conaire’s bird-kin in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, and the hunting of Diarmaid’s foster brother in the form of a boar in Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinn. In Welsh myth we have the many animal transformations of the Fourth Branch, including Lleu’s transmigration when he becomes an eagle at the moment of death; in this branch we also find the animal transformations that were punishments for Gwydion, Gilfaethwy and Blodeuwedd. The transformations of Taliesin are another prominent example.
Common to many of these transformations is the theme of the journey of the soul. In the Fourth Branch, we could interpret the eagle as a symbol for Lleu’s soul; the young nobleman was found in this form atop an otherworldly oak tree by his uncle, Gwydion. This discovery is achieved after Gwydion follows a sow through the countryside to the in-between-place where Lleu is perched. This episode echoes the hunting of Twrch Trwyth in several ways, and they could be different symbolic interpretations of the same concept.
To draw out the symbolic connotations of both events, we first need to understand what’s going on in both tales. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen describes how Ysbaddaden the Chief of Giants, requires the young hero Culhwch to complete a series of impossible tasks before he can marry Ysbaddaden’s beautiful daughter, Olwen. Many of these tasks involve cutting and washing Ysbaddaden’s hair and beard; so tangled and matted is he that many strange and magical items are required to prepare the chief giant for his daughter’s wedding.
We can compare this with the very beginning of the tale, when Culhwch complains of his curse to his father:
‘My stepmother has sworn that I may never have a wife until I get Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr.’
‘It is easy for you to get that son,’ said his father to him. ‘Arthur is your cousin. Go to Arthur to have your hair trimmed, and ask him for that as your gift.’
After reaching Arthur’s court and accepting his cousin’s welcome, Culhwch makes his request:
‘I want to have my hair trimmed.’
‘You shall have that.’
Arthur took a golden comb, and shears with loops of silver, and combed his hair, and asked who he was.
Arthur said, ‘My heart warms towards you. I know you are of my blood. Tell me who you are.’
As Sioned Davies explains in her edition of the Mabinogion “the cutting of hair was a symbolic act by means of which a blood-relationship was recognised and accepted.” (note to p.180). It is in these terms that we should consider Ysbaddaden’s request to have his own hair and beard combed and cut.
The significance of this kind of kinship ritual may best be understood as an expression of matrilineality and the early concept of sovereignty. As well as Culhwch’s destiny that he may marry none but Olwen, according to the tale Ysbaddaden is also destined to die should his daughter ever be wed. One explanation for both these destinies is that the tale preserves an echo of an ancient practice where political power and wealth were transferred through the wedding dowry of a chieftain’s daughter. Such practices were known in many cultures across the ancient world, and are found in many mythologies including the Greek (see the above link to the Wikipedia article on matrilineality).
This is connected to another ancient idea that a land’s sovereignty, its inherent rights as an independent territory, is embodied in the figure of a woman, a goddess figure, and that her marriage confers those sovereign rights upon her new husband making him the sovereign chieftain. This also means that the new husband effectively takes the place of his bride’s father, the old chieftain, stripping him of those same rights. As the embodiment of the old male power, Ysbaddaden must necessarily die before Culhwch can take his place, claiming Ysbaddaden’s rights as the new chieftain. No wonder Ysbaddaden continuously refers to Culhwch as his ‘cursed, savage son-in-law’.
In light of this, Ysbaddaden’s request that his hair and beard be ritually combed and cut takes on a particular symbolic meaning. Arthur is the king of Britain, overlord of all regional chiefs, and Culhwch is formally acknowledged as a member of his family and court through the ritual combing and cutting of his hair. Should Culhwch and Olwen wed, as father of the bride Ysbaddaden would also become a member of this extended family and absorbed into the hierarchy of Arthur’s court. In these terms, when Ysbaddaden joins the same family through marriage he may well have to go through the same ritual of having his hair and beard combed and cut; this will also be the event of his death as the old chieftain.
Culhwch and Olwen is not only the tale of how a young hero fulfils his destiny by marrying the love of his life, its also a story about sovereignty and the trials and tribulations of those who would claim it, a theme that echoes in the depths of other Celtic myths, including the Four Branches. It’s in this context that we can interpret the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth, between whose ears are to be found the only comb and shears in the world that can dress Ysbaddaden’s beard, a matter I’ll be discussing in the next few posts.
I’ve been busy this last month or so with a music commission that may be of interest to some of you. Its part of a wider project of commissioned arts called Cymerau (Welsh for ‘river confluence’). Its aim is to inspire engagement with water and what it means to us as communities and people living in a particular landscape.
My own project, Penillion i’r Leri (‘Songs for the Leri’), is an opportunity for local folks to write folk lyrics for me to sing. In Wales, the folk tradition of ballads and old songs remains a prominent part of culture, and some folks will write folk lyrics in the traditional style, usually for nothing more than their own pleasure, but sometimes for friends, family and other locals. They are almost always on a local theme, and often mention local history or events prominent at the time.
I’ve been asking locals who live along the River Leri to compose penillion (‘folk lyrics’) on the topic of the river as she meanders her way from the high ground around Pumlumon down to the Dyfi estuary. Below is (probably a bad) translation of one recent contribution from Bleddyn Huws of Talybont (sorry Bleddyn if I’ve maimed it too much), followed by a test recording of myself performing it. Enjoy!
The River Leri
What’s the sound in River Leri
rushing on towards the sea?
What kind of chords are in her waters
swelling into one encore?
Is it the mournful sound of days long gone,
old melodies of congregations
roaring wild in her boiling waves
between the hills as she pours on?
Is it the sound of voices from the past
stirring me by night and day
that echo along her shores,
sometimes merry, sometimes sad?
Some say its the sound of her tears
heard endlessly every day
above the bracken in Braichgarw,
weather it be fine or rain.
I hear a song thats older than history
as she rushes to the sea,
the timeless song of vast centuries
drowning the brief moments of my hearing.
And here’s the first draft (which will change for the better as my sister joins me for harmony):