Deer Stalking Series, Winter 2017

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In the storytelling traditions of Europe and beyond, the hero going out into the wilds to hunt is a common motif. It usually means something strange or wonderful is about to take place. In Celtic mythology at least, the magical animal often leads its pursuer to a fateful meeting with the mysterious powers of the land. This hunt for special animals is also an apt metaphor for the oral storytelling traditions themselves. These old story-beasts can scare just as easily as wild game.

To begin with, unless you are in the presence of a storyteller skilled in tracking such rare animals, you’re unlikely to ever see one in the flesh. But more than that, for all their stalking skill, such storytellers can only point out the tracks where the grass is thin, or bring your attention to the fur caught on bramble and thorn. It is still up to you to see the tale for yourself, and it takes patience to pick out even the youngest leveret from amongst the heather, never mind catch a glimpse of the secretive white deer.

If we are clumsy in our approach, we are more likely to scare the tale away, leaving only its confused tracks for us to ponder. But should we have the ability to sit still and the wit to be quiet, if we wait for our eyes to adjust to the half-light of the woods, there is a chance we will witness one of these wild beasts in all its glory, dazzling us with sudden inspiration.

This series of talks, webinars, lectures, discussions, whatever we want to call them, will more importantly be metaphorical hunts for the white deer of Welsh mythology. I promise you nothing but to take you to where the deer sometimes graze, and if you are lucky you may indeed catch a brief glimpse. We will at the very least scare up a few inklings and disturb a few hints.

The sessions will be held on Saturday afternoons, starting 2pm and finishing 4pm (UK time):

November 4 – Wind and Water: Poetry from the Book of Taliesin, pt. 1

November 11 – A Tradition of Triads: A Bardic Education

November 18 – Apples and Piglets: Poetry from the Black Book of Carmarthen, pt. 1

November 25 – Transformations: Poetry from the Book of Taliesin, pt. 2

December 2 – A Land of Legends: Mythology, Archaeology and Memory

December 9 – From the Ear to the Heart: The Welsh Craft of Poetry

December 16 – Medieval Myths: Poetry from the Black Book of Carmarthen, pt. 2

December 23 – The Living and the Dead: Poetry from the Book of Taliesin, pt. 3

If you’d like to come along, please download this PDF for more information:

Deer Stalking Series, Winter 2017

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Gŵyl Chwedleua Aberystwyth

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illustration by Valeriane Leblond

Here’s a couple of talks I gave at the brilliant Aberystwyth Storytelling Festival last weekend (11-13 March). Such a rare opportunity to enjoy the company of professional storytellers, artists, musicians and fully-engaged audiences. I really couldn’t have managed to pull off such mad scheme anywhere else.

New Cloth From Old Thread Crowd sourcing The Fifth Branch with festival participants:

Or you can download the MP3 here, and listen at your own convenience:

New Cloth from Old Thread, Gŵyl Straeon Aber, 13.3.17

The Fifth Branch Guessing at what a fifth branch could be by following the recurring patterns and themes of the original four branches:

Or you can download the MP3 here:

A Fifth Branch, Aber Storytelling Fest, 11.3.17

Every performance at the festival was illustrated live by two artists, the resulting sketches have been uploaded onto the festival website. Take a look here, and don’t miss the next one!

There was a nice piece on the festival in the New Welsh Review:

http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=1394

 

Four Ancient Books

 

Medieval Welsh bards had a taste for the theatrical. Like many men of high standing they had an appreciation of the power of drama. In the 12th century, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr composed a poem blessing the Lord Rhys’ court gates, probably declaimed in a pounding voice as the old bard swished into the hall followed by a proud troop of young apprentices. In the praise poetry of many a medieval Welsh bard there is the same sense of occasion, of grandeur and majesty.

Court bards such as Cynddelw would have worked hard not only to evoke the traditional authority of their ancient guild, but also to conjure a particular mystique. They would have refined the ability to create a sense of dignity, of continued tradition and ancient power. To this end, their poetry was laden with references to the works of esteemed past masters such as Taliesin and Aneirin. In a theatrical sense they were creating a dramatic persona based on the legendary figures of these long dead bardic forefathers, attempting to embody the archetypal wiseman.

But it wasn’t just the myth of the ancient bard that Cynddelw and his fellow poets were trying to evoke. It’s a little known fact that 12th century Welsh court bards also publicly portrayed themselves as derwyddon, as druids. Cynddelw could have actually traced his bardic lineage through Taliesin back to the ancient priest class of the earlier Britons, but that actual historical lineage wasn’t as important as the idea of it. Just as Cynddelw would have conjured the mystique of his bardic ancestors in performance, so he also conjured the basic notion of an ancient priest class of which he was the current embodiment.

In many ways this testifies to the central realisation of medieval Welsh bardic culture: the idea of the past is far more powerful than it’s historical reality. Time and again in prose tales and bardic poetry, the idea of an Arthur or a Taliesin is far more potent than the historical figures themselves.In much the same way, to a medieval Welsh bard such as Cynddelw, the idea of a druid was of more immediate value than any actual historical connection. Publicly claiming membership of an ancient order of wisemen has always had its perks.

Merlin, Robert De Boron, 13th cent.

Merlin, Robert De Boron, 13th cent.

What’s becoming clearer today is the long-term effect of bards such as Cynddelw mythologising themselves, through the theatre of court ceremony turning themselves into symbolic figures that represented profound wisdom and magical enlightenment. The myth of the archetypal wiseman promoted by the Welsh bardic guilds long outlived the bards themselves. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth borrowed the Welsh Myrddin to create the now internationally famous Merlin, many people have been captivated by this same mythology.

Time and again in subsequent centuries, both Welsh and English antiquarians found themselves enchanted by the same ethereal figure of the priest-poet so elegantly conjured in medieval Welsh poetry. The romantic figure of the ancient bard, harp in hand, beard blowing in the wind, became one of the most enduring caricatures of 18th and 19th century British culture.

The Bard 1778 Benjamin West 1738-1820 Purchased 1974 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01900

Benjamin West, The Bard, 1778

So successful was Taliesin, Aneirin and their descendants at mythologising themselves that the shadows they cast down the halls of history were felt by generations centuries later, amongst them generations of English men and women who couldn’t even speak the Welsh tongue. The Welsh bardic tradition was fascinating because of the effect of antiquity it conjured, not necessarily because of its historical lineage back to the druids. That, in essence, was the glamour the Welsh bards so successfully cast upon British culture, and it’s effects can still be felt to this day.

The 18th and 19th century obsession with all things druidical was on occasion fed by translations of medieval Welsh bardic poetry, more often than not presented as ‘the real’ mystic knowledge of the ancient druids. One Welsh antiquarian of the 19th century who took the opportunity to make such grandiose claims was the Rev. Edward Davies in his Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809). Half a century later, the scholar W.F. Skene said of his work “It would probably be difficult to find a stranger specimen of perverted ingenuity and misplaced learning than is contained in [Davies’] work . . .” It wasn’t so much the standard of translation that provoked the ire of academics, but the fantastical theories put forward about the poems themselves.

From "The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands" by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith, 1815

From “The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands” by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith, 1815

That’s not to say that there is nothing at all of interest in these old texts regarding the beliefs and philosophies of the medieval bardic guilds, nor how such things may relate to the earlier culture of the Druids. Ironically, some of the poems badly mangled by early translators such as the Rev. Edward Davies have in recent years been re-edited, the new editions providing hints and clues of the actual mysticism of the Welsh bardic tradition. The magic they practiced was, perhaps unsurprisingly, akin to the sacred theatre of the Greeks and all other such cultures that find power and transformation in public performance. In many ways, their greatest secret was the practice of mythology, the conscious use of myth and symbol to project their ideals onto present and future generations. The enduring figure of the Welsh wiseman, most popularly seen these days in the fictional characters of Merlin and Taliesin, is proof enough of their mastery of that craft.

Ancient Order of Druids, 19th cent.

Ancient Order of Druids, 19th cent.

In the early days of Celtic studies, much confusion was created by early translators being unaware of the theatrical aspect of bardic culture, of how intentionally the bards controlled and projected their chosen mythology. As a result, many succumbed to the glamour of bardic mystique, and were thereby blinded to how skilfully that mystique had been conjured. Captivated by the magic trick, they failed to appreciate the skilful slight of hand. Thankfully, the resulting tangle of assumption, fact and fantasy slowly began to unravel in the 20th century. John Morris-Jones arrived on the scene to prune back some of the more wacky branches that had grown on the tree of understanding. And that pruning was essential, because without it, we would still be looking for the wood in the trees.

One of the majour stepping stones towards dispelling the glamour of the medieval bards was the publication of The Four Ancient Books of Wales by W.F. Skene in 1868 (in fact a significant portion of the translating work was carried out by D. Silvan Evans, with Skene taking responsibility for the final publication). Although by now considered too unreliable as a text for study, it was one of the more important attempts to clear away the brush and take an objective look at the texts. The countless errors that Skene and Silvan Evans’ translation contains can mostly be put down to the immaturity of the academic tradition they worked in, not necessarily a lack of diligence. The lack of decent reference works may have hindered them, but The Four Ancient Books opened the way for later scholars, Ifor Williams chief amongst them, to present editions that have so far stood the test of time.

The Magic of Meaning

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 include 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:

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. . . 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.

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An Allegory of Truth and Time by Annibale Carracci c. 1585

 

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.

The Hunting of Twrch Trwyth, Part 3

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.

 

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The Children of Lir by John Duncan (1914)

Other elements of Culhwch and Olwen have clearly been Christianised in a similar way, for example the description of Gwyn ap Nudd, one of the heroes needed to hunt the Twrch:

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.

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Der Wilde Jager by Johan Cordes (1856-7)

 

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.

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by Margaret Jones

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.