Archive for the ‘Mabinogion’ Tag

Of Bridges and Leaders, Part 3   3 comments

“For I too am Efnisien.”  The rite closes, each man of us — for this is a men-only event — repeating the words, hands lifting from between our feet the small black cauldrons, and cupping them.  They’re warm to the touch still, from when they sat in the central fire-pit.  Owning our rage, not looking away from it.  Seeing its destructiveness, children and women often its first victims, men themselves its last.  Acknowledging the difficult gift of anger, accepting what it might have to teach.  Allowing the possibility of transformation, gift of the Goddess whose symbol is the cauldron.  Echoes of another country, sun-kissed and prone to earthquakes.  Echoes of another story, the same story, permeated with male anger, opening with dark words: “Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses …”*

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jmasonart1The army of Bran is enormous, as if all of Wales has emptied itself and spilled onto the eastern shore of Ireland. The beaches lie dark with men’s shadows.  So great is the full extent of their coming that the heart runs out of the Irish, knowing they can never win in open battle.  It must be by trickery.  So they raise a great house to receive Bran and his men, and the outcome hangs in the balance. Perhaps we can avert war after all, run the rumors, at least among those who don’t know that in the towering new hall, a hundred bags hang from the rafters.  And each holds and conceals an Irish warrior.  The bulging sacks of coarse cloth supposedly contain merely flour, part of the provisioning for the enemies-turned-guests.  A great feast this night, promise the Irish.  We will mend this rancor between us.

More and still more of the Welsh forces pour into the camp.  Among the leaders one stays suspicious.  Efnisien, prince, brother of Bran and Branwen.  Never an easy man, this twin of gentle Nisien.  The muscles ripple beneath his shoulders, and his hands twitch.  Do nothing, brother, till I return, he finally mutters to Bran, and stalks off scowling to reconnoiter the hall.   The last of the Welsh have finally joined the main body of warriors when Efnisien returns.  His hands and torso drip now with blood, and a fierce grin splits his face.  Dead now, he says, exulting. Scores of them, waiting to fall on us at the feast.  He has crushed upwards of a hundred Irish skulls like walnuts. His eyes glow with it.

The second part of the Irish plan for the night, the feast, still proceeds on schedule.  In the center of the hall a great fire burns, the andirons orange in the heat. In the flickering glow, a hall full of warriors whose armbands and bracelets throw back the light, a glitter of silver, jewels and red gold. No more room indoors, men find a place outside. Under torchlight they mingle and stare at each other.  Amid the roasts and savories, the mead and forced cheer along the benches, the Irish plot is a whisper that will not die, that no one admits to hearing.  A call for everyone’s attention, and Gwern, the young prince and heir, child of Matholwch and Branwen, is presented.  Here is one path to peace, a child who unites the two nations in his own flesh.  Bran makes much of him.  Nephew, sister’s son, certain blood kin, a hallowed relationship since time out of mind. But Bran also gazes at his sister sitting beside his brother-in-law Matholwch, notes the painful thinness of her figure, the faint yellow of old bruises on her skin, a tightness around her mouth that does not go away.  Their eyes meet again and again, and they need no words to speak whole histories to each other.  Well, brother? says her look.  I have come, says his.

The feast does no good, even if either side wished it.  The Irish, their plot foiled, are touchy, all nerves, and warriors on both sides take every feasting jest  the worst way.  Tempers run high, spiked with strong drink, and a scuffle breaks out, unsurprisingly, around Efnisien.  It spreads, and in the reckless fighting, Gwern, the shining prince, gets thrown into the massive firepit.**  By Efnisien. His and Bran’s nephew, Branwen’s boy.

At this, both sides drop all pretense.  The fighting spreads, ferocious.  The Irish just keep coming, endlessly, until Efnisien spies the magic cauldron, the gift of Bran for the now accursed wedding between Welsh and Irish royals. Matholwch’s men have turned it to good purpose, deploying it to revive their fallen fighters.  What use, what hope is it to kill men who don’t stay dead?!

Efnisien shakes his head to clear away some of the battle lust.  Think! he commands himself.  The red fog that clouds his mind thins briefly.  And then he’s got it, a way forward.  He flings away his own sword, grabbing one of Irish make, and throws himself among the Irish corpses awaiting resurrection.   He lies still as he can, trying to slow his heavy breathing. The cauldron itself must go.  Soon enough, as he foresaw, the Irish don’t stop to pick and choose, but toss each Irish corpse into the cauldron, hurrying on to the next.  From the depths of the magic vessel comes a deep hum.  Steam rises from it, along with a roar of distant voices that shakes its sides.

Efnisien feels himself lifted, then dropped.  How long he seems to fall!  Then a sudden heat hugs him, burning along each nerve and vein.  Everywhere his skin seems to melt into agony.  The death-destroying power of the cauldron — but he is already alive! With a last surge of strength, he somehow finds his feet, shoving his arms out to both sides, the cauldron a scalding quicksilver fury against palms and soles.  He heaves hard, harder. The cauldron, and Efnisien too, shrieks, cracks and shatters.  Then blackness.

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Bran carrying the body of his nephew Gwern

Bran carrying the body of his nephew Gwern/Harlech Castle, Wales

How many others can be dead, and none matter but two?  Bran thinks.  Gwern lost, and his sister Branwen all but dead from grief.  On all sides, heap upon heap of bodies lies.  The Irish who had assembled against them?  All slain.  And the endless army of the Welsh? Of those lines and squads and battalions of men who crossed the Irish Sea with him, just seven survive.

Part Four recounts the return of the Seven to Wales.

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*Fagles, Robert.  The Iliad.  Penguin Classics, 1999.

**This act of Efnisien’s is explained by one source as “avoiding the geas against shedding kinsmen’s blood.”

Images: Courtney Davis/jmasonart; Brand and Gwern.

Edited and updated 21 Feb 2014

Of Bridges and Leaders, Part 2   2 comments

[Part One here]

And so the tale unfolds, its apparent focus on the actions of men.  But what of Branwen, sister of Bran?  She is not merely passive, an unwitting pawn in the hands of her brother, her family.

In her story a second and hidden teaching lies in plain sight, so to speak.

“She tames a starling and teaches it human speech,” goes one version.  Such an innocent line.  Does she achieve this before her mistreatment begins at the hands of her new husband, Matholwch king of Ireland?  During?  In either case, her deed stands as a marvel.

The -wen affix in Welsh is one way to form feminine names: Branwen, no less than Bran, is a leader, a bridge. A Raven.  For if she tames the starling before she needs it so desperately, foresight and guidance are hers because she listened and acted on them.  And if after, to her belong inspiration and determination and a singular courage.  To win the trust of a wild creature, to teach it speech, even if it is mimicry, to impress on it the urgency of her plight, to teach or guide it where to fly to find Bran, and on finding him, to repeat the message — each is remarkable alone, to say nothing of all of them together, while being abused and degraded.  This is the power of the animal in us, of Raven wisdom.

I do a quick internet search for “raven wisdom” and through a marvel worthy of the story, within seconds “A Bit about the Raven” appears among the links.  What are some characteristics of Raven Wisdom, according to the site?

  • Rebirth without fear
  • Ability to tear down what needs to be rebuilt
  • Renewal
  • Ability to find light in darkness
  • Courage of self-reflection
  • Introspection
  • Comfort with self
  • Honoring ancestors
  • Connection to the Crone
  • Divination
  • Change in consciousness
  • New occurrences
  • Eloquence

Each of these is apt and fitting, without forcing the issue. Deserving of meditation. Fear would rule you if it could. In Branwen’s case, with abuse and pain and betrayal at the hands of your husband, trapped in another country, all your blood kin, except for your child, across the sea, out of reach. Raven brings rebirth without fear. Branwen realizes the gift of self-possession, and “possessing” the self, a kind of paradox, she — we — have all that is needed.

I’d take a good Black Ops team any day, or barring that, a revolver, you think. And in the short term, these advantages would serve. But how well would they serve?  Rescued, delivered, you return to your old life.  No change, no growth to speak of, only new sorrow, and harrowing memory.  A resolve not to be married off without your consent?  Maybe it started as a love match, not just a political marriage.  Who can say, from what the story itself offers?

raven2But if you “learn” from the experience, but do not also transform as a result, you learn not to trust your own judgment, not to trust the judgment of your family who supposedly love you, who launch you into such a disastrous marriage. Not to trust life to bring you home.

Raven offers more.  It asks us about our own consciousness, about our attitudes to kinds of wisdom we may not (yet) value, or which we may even disdain or abuse, but which remain as gifts given before we can see and claim them as ours.  Raven is nowadays ubiquitous as a Craft name, a Pagan nickname, or initiatory identity.  Raven was the first degree of initiation among the devotees of Mithras.  And Raven is the trickster and initiator par excellence among traditional peoples of many cultures.

For the story does not end merely in rescue …

Part Three coming soon.

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Image: Raven

Of Bridges and Leaders: A Branch from the Mabinogion   Leave a comment

Here begins an old tale from the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, told on the Island of the Mighty — Prydein or Britain.  It starts small, like many tales that grow at length to something greater.  This particular story begins with a bird …

starlingA flutter of wings, a small dark shadow overhead.  You look up.  With a Welsh name like Bran, which means Raven, you’ve grown used to such encounters.  Like calls to like, after all.  The bird, a starling, circles you,  its breast heaving with the double strain, it turns out, of a hasty sea journey and the urgent message it has for you.  It alights on the windowsill of your chamber.  Claws scuttle on the stone, as it gazes at you expectantly.  The charcoal feathers shift and settle.  As king of Britain, you’ve learned to listen.

The bird chirps its news.  The message, it seems, comes from your sister Branwen …

BranwenSome years past, Branwen married Matholwch, the king of Ireland.  A canny match. True, their wedding didn’t come off without a hitch, but then what wedding does? Efnisien, your difficult half-brother, arrived in the middle of the betrothal feast and made a stink at not being consulted.  More than peeved, he acted, mutilating some of Matholwch’s prize horses. Ah, brothers-in-law. Men on both sides lunge for their weapons. From feast to fight on the same day.

Quickly you hit on a fitting response: a gift from the royal treasury.  A conciliatory gift, a magic cauldron you give Matholwch that has the power to revive fallen warriors.  The Irish king, appeased by the marvelous gift, looks calmer.  His jaw unclenches.  At a gesture, swords are sheathed.  Spears grounded.  Blood cools, as the court bard strikes up a soothing song.  Crisis avoided.

Over the months and those first years, messages come. Time for a child and heir born to the royal couple, your nephew Gwern — check.  Time for the memory of the wedding embarrassment of an unruly relative to die down — check.  Time for healing …

A sharp squawk brings you back to the present.  The starling’s news is dark.  The shadow of Efnisien’s deed, it appears, still pricks the Irish pride and honor.  The Irish king, your brother-in-law, is mistreating Branwen, in spite of the fine heir she has provided him. He beats her daily and has banished her to the kitchens.  Nothing for it, you know, but to set out with a troop of warriors to resolve the problem — personally.  You summon men from all 154 cantrefs (districts) of Wales.  With you travel your brothers Manawydan and Efnisien.  You will not be ignored.

You cross the Irish Sea, and even before you beach your boats and stand on the eastern shore of Ireland, word of your coming has spread.  The Irish, determined to slow if not halt your advance, have taken out some of their own key bridges.

Your great stature makes you a giant among your subjects.  Literally. Leaning across each river and valley as you come to it, you lay your own body down for your men to cross over.  As you do, you say the words, “A fo ben, bid bont” — “He who would be a leader, let him be a bridge.”

[Part Two]

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Images:  starlingBranwen.

Persistence   Leave a comment

Persistence, and its twin patience, may be our greatest magic.  Sacred writings around the globe praise its powers and practitioners. So it’s hardly surprising, here in the too-often unmagical West, with its suspicion of the imagination, and its demand for the instantaneous, or at least the immediate, that we are impatient, restless, insecure, harried, stressed, whiny, dissatisfied and ungrateful.  We bustle from one “experience” to the next, collecting them like beads on a necklace.  The ubiquitous verb “have” leaves it mark in our speech, on our tongues:  we “have” dinner, we “have” class or a good time, we even “have” another person sexually, and one of the worst sensations is “being had.”  We do not know self-possession, so other things and people possess us instead.

The “slow food” movement, the pace appropriate for savoring, craftsmanship, care, reflection, meditation and rumination (slow digestion!) all run counter to the ethos of speed, promptness, acceleration that drive us to a rush to orgasm, speeding tickets, the rat race, stress-related illness, and so on.  None of these problems or the observations about them are new, of course.  But we remain half-hearted in our efforts or understanding of how to “pursue” their remedy.  We chase salvation as much as anything else, as a thing to collect or gather or purchase so we can be about our “real” business, whatever we think that is.  Spirituality gets marketed along with orange juice.  For a sum, you can be whisked off to a more exotic locale than where you live your life, spend time with a retreat leader or guru or master or guide, and “have” (or “take”) a seminar or class or workshop.

Anyone who has adopted a spiritual practice and stuck with it has seen benefits.  Like regular exercise, it grants a resilience and stamina I can acquire in no other way.  I sit in contemplation and nothing much happens.  A week or a month goes by, and my temper might have subtly improved.  Fortunate coincidences increase.  My dream life, or a chance conversation, or a newspaper article, nudges me toward choices and options I might not have otherwise considered.  But usually these things arrive so naturally that unless I look for them and document them, I perceive no connection between spiritual practice and the increased smoothness of my life.  From a slog, it becomes more of a glide.  But the very smoothness of the transition makes it too subtle for my dulled perceptions at first.  It arrives naturally, like the grass greening in the spring, or that gentle all-day snow that mantles everything.

I abandoned a particular daily practice after many years, for complicated reasons deserving a separate post, and I needed only to read the notebooks I kept from that earlier time to recall vividly what I had lost, if my own life wasn’t enough to show me.  My internal climate faced its own El Nino.  I was more often short with my wife, mildly depressed, more often sick with colds, less inspired to write, less likely to laugh, more tired and more critical of setbacks and annoyances.  Set down in writing this way, the changes sound more dramatic — didn’t I notice them at the time? — but as a gradual shift, they were hardly noticeable at any one point.  I still had my share of good days (though  I didn’t seem to value them as much), and my life was tolerable and rewarding enough.  “But I was making good money!” may be the excuse or apology or justification we make to ourselves, and for a time it was true enough of me.  Then came the cancer, the near-breakdown, the stretch of several years where I seemed to move from doctor to doctor, test to test, treatment to treatment.  If you or anyone you know has endured this, you get what I’m talking about.  It’s distinctly unfun.  And while I won’t say lack of practice caused this, it’s an accompanying factor, a “leading indicator,” a constituent factor.  Doctors might very profitably begin their diagnoses with the question, “So how’s your spiritual practice?”  Our spiritual pulse keeps time with our physical lives.  They’re hardly separate things, after all.  Why should they be?

In the story of Taliesin I mentioned in my last post, the boy Gwion, so far from the future Taliesin he will become, is set by the goddess Cerridwen to watch a cauldron as it cooks a magical broth meant to transform her son Afagddu, a mother’s gift to her child.  A year and a day is the fairy-story time Gwion spends at it.  A full cycle.  The dailiness of effort and persistence.  The “same-old,” much of the time.  Gwion’s a servant.  The cauldron sits there each morning.  The fire beneath it smoulders.  Feed the fire, stir the liquid.  It cooks, and Gwion “cooks” along with it, the invisible energy of persistence accumulating as surely as the magical liquor boils down and grows in potency.  Through the spring and summer, insects and sweat.  Through autumn and winter, frost and chill and ice.  The cauldron has not changed.  Still at it?  Yes.  The broth slowly thickens as it bubbles and spatters.

One day a few drops (in some versions, three drops) fly out onto one of Gwion’s hands, burning.  Instinctively he lifts the hand to his mouth, to lick and soothe it with his tongue.  Immediately the magic “meant for another” is now his.  He did, after all, put in the time.  He sat there daily, through the seasons, tending the cauldron, stirring and keeping up the fire, swatting insects, breathing the smoke, batting sparks away, eyes reddened.  Yes, the “accident” of the spattered drops was at least partly the result of “being at the right time in the right place.”  It is “luck” as well as “grace,” both operative in his life.  Part, too, was the simple animal instinct to lick a burn.  And the greater portion was the effort, which catalyzed all the rest into a unified whole.  Effort, timing, luck, chance, grace:  the “package deal” of spirituality.

And the consequence? For Gwion, his growth has just begun.  It is his initiation, his beginning.   In his case it distinctly does NOT mean an easier path ahead for him.  In fact, just the opposite — more on that in a coming post.

The Hopi of the American Southwest call their ritual ceremonial pipe natwanpi, “instrument of preparing.”  The -pi suffix means a vehicle, a means, a tool.  Tales like this story of Gwion can become a natwanpi for us, if we choose — part of our preparation and practice, a tool, a way forward.

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Fast food

Transformation

Hopi blanket

Keys to Druidry in Story   Leave a comment

Those inclined to criticize contemporary Druidry have made much about how the specific practices and beliefs of ancient Druids are forever lost to us simply because they left no written records, and because the references to Druids in the works of classical Greek and Roman authors are mostly based on secondhand accounts and sometimes markedly biased. Without such historical continuity, they claim, it is impossible to be a “real” Druid today, and thus all contemporary Druidry is a kind of whistling in the wind, at best a version of dress-up for adults.  But what such writers and speakers often forget is the surviving body of legend, myth, teaching and wisdom in Celtic literature.  Here is Druidry in compact and literary form, meant to be preserved as story, a link-up with the perennial wisdom that never dies.

To pick just one example, the stories from the Mabinogion, the Welsh collection of myth, legend and teaching have wonderful relevance and serve as a storehouse of much Druid teaching. Sustained meditation on these stories will reveal much of use and value to the aspirant after a Druidry that is authentic simply because it is grounded in knowledge and practice.  As a pragmatist more than a reconstructionist, I’m much more interested in what works than in what may be historically accurate.  The former leads one to inner discoveries.  The latter is engaging as a worthwhile scholarly endeavor first, and only as a possible source of spiritual insight second.  And that is as it should be.  History is not spirituality, though it can inform it.  But even if we can accurately deduce from an always incomplete archaeological record what a Bronze Age Druid may have done, it’s still not automatically fit and appropriate for a contemporary 21st century person to adopt.  That’s a decision we must make apart from the reconstruction, which cannot guide us by itself.  Stories, however, though formed in a particular culture, often reach toward universals far better than physical objects and actions.

The story of Taliesin (this link is to a public domain text — more modern and well annotated versions are available) in the Mabinogion moves us into a world of myth and initiation.  In the tale, the boy Gwion passes through ordeals and transformations, becoming at length the poet and sage Taliesin, whose name means “shining brow” — one who has a “fire in the head” and is alive with wisdom and poetic inspiration.  As with figures from other traditions whose heads are encircled with halos, or shining with an otherworldly brightness, Taliesin belongs to the company of the “twice-born,” who have fulfilled their humanity by making the most of it.  In my next post, I’ll talk about the first key in the story — persistence.

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First image is a triskele or triskelion, a pan-European symbol associated with the Celts.

Second image is of Taliesin from Caitlin and John Matthews’ Arthurian Tarot.

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Updated 9 September 2013

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