Lee Davies 2007
First published in Pentacle Magazine, Imbolc 2007
Within the modern neo-pagan community, in the UK and the US, there is a growing interest in pagan traditions derived from a Welsh and Brythonic past. Past of this can be attributed to people tracing a history to these lands and an associated feeling of familial connections whilst others will take an interest out of a romantic sense of a historic genuine "Celtique" past.
Sadly with many of these there is a depressing lack of scholarly interest, it tends to be romanticised, poorly researched and, dare I say it, fluffy. Some authors with dubious titles including the words such as 'ancient', 'Celtic' and 'magic' have not helped in perpetuating the rubbish out there, especially since much of it finds it way onto the internet. On the subject of the internet there are sites out there which abound in decent scholarly and serious in-depth work and personal experience that positively shines with heartfelt and sincerely derived spiritual experience, www.caerfeddwyd.co.uk is an excellent example of what I would like to see more of, along with the upcoming www.brython.org.uk.
The baedd gwyn [buy-th gwinn], or white boar in English, is a potent symbol within Cymric (welsh) folklore and myth. White animals themselves hold special significance but the boar can be noted for being the animal that acts as a guide and leads the traveller into the otherworld of Annwfyn [ann-oo-vinn]. St Collen was lead to the hall of Gwyn ap Nudd [gwinn app neeth] by a white boar and it was a white boar that led Pryderi [pri-derr-ee] to his fate in Annwfyn in the Mabinogi. As a passing aside it was a white stag that appeared at that liminal place when Pwyll [poo-i-tll] encountered Arawn [arr-ow-nn]. It is for this reason I have chosen the image of a white boar to designate a new journey to Annwfyn, a new attempt to share a few ideas and some research into the Cymric past and a deeper felt and meaningful Cymric future.
So where to begin? Well my advice would be the myths, the Mabinogion of course being the prime example, followed by works such as the 'Llyfr Taliesin' and the poem 'Preiddu Annwfyn' and the 'Trioedd Ynys Prydein'. These four works should help provide the initial insights into the myths and folklore, though to delve no deeper would be to miss the mysteries. To skim the surface of the Cymric well would give you just a shallow look at the ancient gods and beings. With a little more effort you can find the hidden knowledge still lurking in the pages of these works.
Once you have studied a little of these ancient welsh works, you can gain a better insight into the beliefs of our ancestors and how they had built a relationship with the gods and how they placed the gods in their lives and worldview. Then, you can also begin to build upon this knowledge to start forging a deeper and more insightful relationship yourself, a relationship which begins with more depth that just accepting that for instance Manawyddan ap Llyr is simply a welsh sea god and that Branwen is the welsh goddess of love. The truth is far more inspiring.
This article will be followed by two others, this first as an introduction and also a discussion of the primary sources. The second and third will look deeper at the gods themselves and will put forward ways of beginning to forge relationships with them.
The place to begin is of course the Mabinogion, a discussion of which could fill several volumes such as Pentacle magazine, this is a collection of four tales or 'branches', which detail the exploits of a host of characters. There is some cross over in characters in the tales, most notably is Pryderi, the son of Pwyll lord of Dyfed and also head of Annwfyn. Pryderi's mother is Rhiannon [rhee-ann-onn], the decidedly goddess-like female from Annwfyn. Pryderi features to varying degrees though the tales so it has been proposed that originally he was the lead character and that the mabinogion was a series of wonder-tales woven around his life and incorporating older mythological themes and god/dess characters. The various editions of the mabinogion also include some of the later Arthurian romances, of particular interest is Culhwch [kull-hoo-ch] ac Olwen [oll-wenn] which includes a large body of much older material, gods and mythic themes.
A number of publications have been produced that investigate, in a scholarly manner, the four branches and the mythic themes that occur in them (notably works by Gruffydd and MacCana). These studies also begin to pull the tales apart to get to the core mythic material and clear up what are slightly muddled tales that have become corrupted over time. Other studies such as that by Ford and the collection of essays edited by Sullivan are treatments of various aspects of the Welsh mythic material and cover more specific areas of the mythology and its characters.
Gruffydd carried out a treatise of the first and third branches of the mabinogi, those dealing with the events surrounding Rhiannon and her son Pryderi, in an effort to begin to separate the strands of the myth which were later corruptions from other popular stories of the time and also to get back to the core mythos of these two branches. His conclusions were somewhat controversial in that some other scholars of the time believed he had gone a bit too far in his interpretations. It was Gruffydd that came to the now accepted conclusion that the mabinogi are a series of much older tales and myths into which has been inserted a quasi-historical folk hero Pryderi, so it is Pryderi who was born to Rhiannon rather than the original Gwri, who still makes an appearance. To summarise Gruffydd's conclusions: he suggested that Rhiannon is a derivative of Rigatona, a much older Brythonic great-mother-queen divinity and that her consort was originally Teyrnon [Tay-er-nonn] who himself is a locally derived variant of Tigernos or Great Lord (in Cymric mythology the ending '-on' in a personal name usually suggests a divine origin), their son was the divine child Gwri who became Pryderi with retelling and glossing of the myths. In the first branch Rhiannon the otherworldy goddess meets a mortal Lord of Dyfed and they marry. Her association with horses and therefore Epona like qualities are maintained in the foal, her bottomless bag of food (cornucopia?) and her punishment for apparently killing her own child which was to act as a mount for those approaching the fortress at Arberth. The events of the first branch are mirrored in the third where again we have Pryderi captured by otherworld forces and imprisoned along with his mother, again she is forced to act as a horse. This time it is Manawyddan rather then Teyrnon who rescues them and restores the land in what is clearly a Cymric descent of the goddess type myth. It is interesting that Manawyddan appears, his name is derived from Mannanan mac Lir, though he bears no resemblance to him at all, this prompted a couple of scholars to suggest that Manawyddan isn't an original character but a name change for Teyrnon who again rescues Pryderi and Rhiannon as he did in the first branch. Another interesting point raised by Gruffydd is that Arawn, in the first part of the first branch, is the actual father of Pryderi. He makes a good case for Arawn exchanging places with Pwyll so that he can 'hook up' with Pwyll's otherworldly wife Rhiannon. Also, he makes a good case for Hafgan [Hav-gann] also being Arawn, he justification being that in the otherworld, nobody knew that Pwyll had taken Arawn's place, but when Hafgan and Pwyll met in combat, Hafgan knew it was Pwyll. Gruffydd's questioned how Hafgan knew this unless it was Arawn in disguise. Of course the timeline is a little muddled here as these events occur before Pwyll meets Rhiannon, but considering that much of the mabinogion is muddled and corrupted then it is entirely plausible that Gruffydd was on to something. Considering that Teyrnon plays a role in the rescue of Gwri/Pryderi, we could be looking at Teyrnon being Arawn with Arawn being a title rather then an actual name, the suggestion of Arawn being a title has been made by several separate scholars.
Gruffydd also published his inquiry into the fourth branch of the mabinogi, that of Math ap Mathonwy which centre around, contrary to the name, Gwydion and his nephew/son Lleu Llaw Gyffes. This rather monumental and extensive study of the branch comes to some very interesting conclusions (he uses Irish mythology as a comparison, and quite rightly so, with clear parallels between Beli Mawr-Balor and Lleu-Lugh) suggesting that Math has replaced the patriarchal deity Beli Mawr and that in being promoted in this way, Math's role as the helpful magician has been filled by Lleu's uncle/father Gwydion. Gruffydd suggests that this branch fills the mould of the myth the 'Prophesised Death of the King' where Beli Mawr is the king and in order to prevent his own death at the hands of his grandson, he takes his daughter Arianrhod to be his foot-holder so as to prevent her conceiving by any man (as an aside, a discussion of the misunderstanding of the name Arianrhod will follow in the second article of this series). In order to overcome this hurdle, Gwydion stirs war with Dyfed to the south which leads to the death of Pryderi, causing Beli Mawr to leave for conflict. In his absence Gwydion sleeps with Arianrhod and she falls pregnant. Her son Lleu Llaw Gyffes then goes on with the aid of his father to fulfil his destiny, though hindered by his mother out of shame or possibly by his grandfather Beli Mawr as a second attempt to prevent his own death at the hands of Lleu. The episode of Blodeuwedd is also referred to and Gruffydd suggests that in fact she wasn't turned into an owl as occurs in the mabinogion, but that originally she and her lover Gronw were the ones forced to live as wild boar, wolves and deer for a year each as happens to Gwydion and Gilvaethwy earlier in the myth whilst the owl related incidents are a later addition due to a misunderstanding of the name Blodeuwedd and an attempt to explain it.
Following the death of Gruffydd it was one of his students, Prosinas MacCana who went on to carry out a study of the second branch, Branwen daughter of Llyr as Gruffydd had originally intended to do. The main focus of this study was to look at the parallels between the second branch and any Irish influences. He also set out to clear out any corruptions and strip back some of the mythos to its original core. So for instance, he removes the characters Nisien and Efnisien as later additions on the basis that Nisien is a direct addition of the early christian saint Nisien into the tale and that Efnisien was also added as his more chaotic twin. However, the role of Efnisien is taken by another character in Irish mythology so we can still hang on to the role whilst eliminating the name as being much later. Another conclusion is that the myth as a whole is glossed and added to version of the otherworldly raid, such as in the later poem 'Preiddu Annwfyn' in which Arthur leads his men into Annwfyn in order to retrieve a cauldron. The parallels between this myth and the poem are striking, so it's conceivable that the original and 'lost' myth here is of an otherworldy raid by Bendigeidfran to retrieve something or other. What this something is however, is a whole new mystery, was it the cauldron that still appears in the myth or was it his sister/twin Branwen? Or both? Something also mentioned by Loomis is that the whole episode with the head of Bran and its subsequent burial may well be a misunderstanding of the word 'Pen' in welsh. Pen denotes not only 'head' but also 'head' as in the ruler or lord sense. So perhaps Bran wasn't the 'head' in the otherworldly sojourn but the 'lord' of the otherworldy feasting that followed the battle in Ireland. This being the case it would certainly place him as a lord in Annwfyn and the host of the 80 years spent there by the seven survivors.