The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part II)


Blodeuwedd meets Gronw Pebr, E. Wallcousins ‘Celtic Myth & Legend’, Charles Squire

In the first part of my essay, The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part I), I wrote about the titular work, discussing the notion of the otherworld and the way it is described and portrayed in the stories contained in the prose collection. I brought forth some of the common topics and themes the reader encounters in the tales as well as some recurrent traits: the relativity of space and time, the stunning, radiant looks of the fairies, the frequent marvelous incidents, the bizarre natural phenomena that precede said marvels, the importance of the stag hunting etc.

Continuing in the same vein, I’ll keep discussing other motifs that show up in the stories. A host of magical objects feature in the various narratives, functioning as a symbol of their otherwordly owners or as a foreshadowing for the coming of some supernatural event, completely flouting the laws of nature and physics.

Rhiannon’s magic bag, whom she offers to Pwyll in order to capture Gwawl, can never be filled ‘unless an extremely powerful nobleman … treads down the food … with both feet’. In the second branch, we’re introduced to a cauldron which can bring the dead back to life, thus restoring the Irish warriors in an attempt to defeat Bendigeidfran’s men till Efnysien makes the ultimate sacrifice by breaking it in the process. The cauldron was a vessel of paramount importance both in common life and ritual alike for the Celts. The cauldron of rebirth, apart from being a mirror of the baptismal fonts of medieval churches,carries the echo of the Holy Grail found in the matter of Britain.

The cult of the severed head, an important aspect of the custom-rite of Celtic life, couldn’t be absent from a work that offers the purest expression of the Welsh nation. The head of Bran the Blessed, is an example of apotropaic magic as it protects the isle of Britain from invasions from across the sea. The magic cloak is another staple the readers of such tales are familiar with. Its ability to bestow concealment upon its wearer attests to its otherwordly origin.

The wand of the mighty enchanter Math is initially used by its owner as a chastity test  upon Arianhod to prove her virginity. The Arthurian tales overflow with such magical objects that prove and disprove values such as infidelity, chastity, knightly virtue and loyalty. In some versions, Morgana le Fay attempts to disclose Quinevere’s infidelity through the use of a magical cup/horn. In the medieval narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the the contest for the severed head functions as a test for courtesy, honesty and truthfulness.

The wand reveals another purpose when Math wields it to mete out punishment to Gwydion and Gilfaethwy through their transformation to animals and that of their offspring into humans.

One of the most formidable enchanters in the Mabinogion, the trickster Gwydion, often resorts to the use of magic to serve his shady purposes. He incites war, weaving an illusion against Pryderi in order to steal the pigs Arawn had sent to him and employing magic in order to ensure his defeat in single combat. He calls to life a ship and leather from seadweed, alters his and Lleu’s form twice and conjures the apparition of a fleet. He aids his uncle, king Math, in creating Blodeuwedd, the flower maiden, to serve as a wife to his nephew, Lleu, and again through the use of the wand he coaxes Lleu down from the tree where he’s perched as an eagle and transforms him back to human, in the end turning Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment for her infidelity and her attempt to kill her husband with the help of her lover.

Lances are often depicted as weapons with magical properties. Although the lance that kills Bran the Blessed is merely poisoned, the one brandished against Lleu is far from ordinary. In branch four, Lleu explains the tynged placed upon him: only a lance that requires a year to be crafted and worked only when people attend Mass on Sunday has the ability to slay him.

Certain characters in the Mabinogion display peculiar traits and aspects. Supernatural growth denotes a person’s otherwordly origins, their birth often coinciding with that of an animal. In the first branch, upon waking up, Rhiannon realizes her son, Pryderi, has vanished only for the babe to appear at Teyrnon’s door at the same time a foal is born. Pryderi’s strength is quite impressive for his age. One year old, he is much more developed and with more brawn than a three-year-old boy, at two he is as sturdy as a six-year-old and at four he bargains with the stable boys to water the horses.

Lleu is presented likewise. At one he possess the sturdiness of a two-year-old, at two he is large enough to go to court unaccompanied, and at four he is as strong and healthy as an eight-year old. The young of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, born through their otherwordly punishment, are depicted as sturdy, strong and good-sized.

The inclusion of giants and their massive size is another staple in the prose collection, possibly harkening back to a folk memory of an ancient race that comprised the native inhabitants of the land. Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid is described as large, his wife of double size. Bran the Blessed cannot fit into a house, his body large enough to function as a bridge over the Liffey.

Stunning physical strength is, also, a characteristic of the otherwordly characters. The psychopath Efnysien possesses enough brawn to crush a man’s head through armour and bone, and to break the magic cauldron when he jumps into it in order to ensure his comrades emerge victorious in the battle against the Irish.

Rhiannon’s strength is revealed as equal to that of a horse when she’s tasked to carry visitors upon her back during her punishment. Arianhod’s strength lies in the way she manipulates language, placing a series of five tynged upon her son Lleu while her first-born, Dylan, takes to the sea immediately, swimming as proficiently as a fish. Gwydion is, too, well-versed in the art of words, his storytelling flair gaining him access to both Pryderi’s and Arianhod’s circles.

Despite being a powerful enchanter, Math requires that his feet rest upon the lap of a virgin to remain alive. Arawn, king of the otherwordly realm of the dead, is a potent shapeshifter, possessing the ability to exchange appearances with Pwyll.

Supernatural fertility is another theme that runs throughout the fourth branch. Punished by the Venedotian king Math, the brothers Gwydion and Filfaethwy shift into animals, their mating resulting in three offspring. As Math tests Arianhod’s virginity, she steps over his wand and drops ‘a large, sturdy’ boy, then a ‘small something’ is left behind as well, which Gwydion snatches and places within his chest to incubate. Math and Gwydion conceive Blodeuwedd through the means of flowers from oak, broom and meadowsweet.

In the second branch, there’s an episode in which Llasae Llaes Gyfnewdidd foresees the time of conception of his son by his wife, who will be born a fully armed warrior. The cauldron of rebirth which Efnysien smashes to pieces in the end is another vessel used to symbolize fertility, the whole concept behind it a possible folk memory of a Celtic fertility cult. Statuettes crafted out of pipe-clay of a mother-goddess are spread throughout the Romano-Celtic Europe, produced in Britttany, Gaul and the Rhineland in the first and second centuries.

Many of the tales in the Mabinogion feature the motif of the impossible/challenging task where the hero has to follow certain instructions and move within certain limitations in order to ensure success. Often it is a mortal who must undertake the quest, aided by the advice of an otherwordly character. In the first branch, Arawn instructs Pwyll not to strike Hafgan more than once even if the latter asks him to. For if he does, Hafgan will rise again and continue fighting. Possibly a case that reflects the mentality of the medieval Celtic warrior caste and its wisdom of not engaging in excessive violence.

In the second branch, Bran the Blessed counsels the seven survivors to linger in Gwales, ‘And so long as you do not open the door towards Aber Henfelen, you can remain there and the head will not decay’. The ritualistic burial of his head with the eyes gazing towards France further explores this concept. When the door is opened, the paradise the survivors had basked in loses its glamour and when the concealed head that protected Britain is later unearthed by Arthur, the isle falls prey to invasion and foreign occupation.

In the fourth branch, a peculiar tynged is placed upon Lleu regarding his mortality. Tricked by his wife to reveal this secret, he confesses that he can only be killed if struck by a spear that is crafted only on Sundays when people are at mass while standing on a bath under a thatched roof, on a back of a billy goat, beside a river. Definitely a series of bizarre conditions containing a symbolism known to a medieval audience but now lost to us.


The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part I)


Owain Departs from Landine, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (19th century)

The term Mabinogion refers to the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain  compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. The  collection covers eleven prose stories of miscellaneous literary genres, offering a colourful panorama of drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy and humour.

A fruit of Celtic culture, the tales are steeped in the Welsh mentality, customs, habits, spirituality and general worldview of this nation. All peoples throughout history have developed a concept of parallel dimensions, of worlds that cooexist within the terrain of reality where the mortals reside: the realm of the glorious heroes of the past,  the gods and the dead.

The Celts were no exception to this rule. The idea of the otherworld  featured prominently in the Celtic imagined reality, and the four branches of the Mabinogion overflow with a peculiar system of magical faith that seamlessly blends with the natural world, totally stripped of the cloak of the supernatural.

The Celtic otherworld cannot be understood or presented as a cohesive, uniform universe, but rather as a dreamlike, fluid entity comprising of various spheres where space and time diverge from mortal perception and abide by a host of different rules. It is a vague, nebulous place (often referred to as separated by a veil from the mortal world). The dwelling of powerful magical beings of incomparable beauty called fairies and the dead.

Access to it could be gained at certain liminal timeframes, like during the feast of Samhain and Beltaine, thus generating traffic between the mortal and the otherwordly folk and bringing forth a chaotic situation where boundaries collapsed and the living and the dead interacted with impunity.

Known by several names like Kaer Siddi, Mag Mell, Tir na nOg, and Annwfn, the Celtic otherwold could be adjoined to the real world or existing in a totally different plane below the earth or even across the ocean. One could enter it through magical portals, mounds, caves, mountains, forests and rivers.

The insular Celts, living on islands and surrounded by sea and engulfted by virginal territories of thick woodlands, often projected their own familiar reality onto the otherworld, their fancy conceiving it amidst forests or as a cluster of isles where no other season existed but spring or summer, with days full of  warmth and light, where old age and sickness were always absent, food and drink always abundant, music flowing over, falsehood never uttered and the otherwordly denizens possessing riveting beauty and charm.

Many of the tales within the Mabinogion often narrate incidents and marvels that take place close to or on hills and mounds. Such places the Celts imagined them as sources of liminality, a fact that may carry an association with Bronze Age tumuli. In Pwyll, Prince of Dyved, the titular character sits atop the mound of Gorsedd Arberth and witnesses ‘something wonderful’ – his otherworldly future bride.

In another episode, upon the same mound, a blanket of mist settles heavily on Dyved, leaving behind a desolate land. Later, on this mound, Manawydan forces the sorcerer Llwyd to release Rhiannon and Pryderi from their enchanted imprisonment.

In the second branch, the Irish king Matholwch is hunting on top of a mound when
he spies the giant Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his equally large wife
emerging from the lake with a cauldron on his back.

Water is another door to the otherworld, a fact proven in the second branch where Manawydan, Pryderi and the rest of the survivors spend eighty years on the island of Gwales.

The otherwold it is possible, too, to coexist literally on the fringes of the real world as shows the tale of Pwyll whom Arawn leads there from the kingdom of Dyved.

The Mabinogion employs certain symbols and phenomena to foreshadow the coming of a supernatural occurence. A blanket of mist frequently swirls upon the land out of the blue like in the tale of the black night and the fountain and in the story where Rhiannon and Pryderi vanish within the magical fort in Dyved.

Such a bizarre natural phenomenon is often accompanied by a loud noise usually in the form of a clap of thunder. However, different types of clamour are also employed. For instance, in the first branch Teyrnon  hears ‘a loud noise, and after the noise an enormous claw comes through the window’. In the third branch, Manawydan hears ‘the loudest noise in the world’ just as the mice appear. And in the fourth branch, as Arianhod steps over Math’s wand she births a son, who ‘gave a loud cry’, and as Lleu was turned into an eagle he ‘gave a horrible scream’.

The hunting of a stag is another device that heralds an otherwordly encounter or the appearance of some miraculous event. Pwyll is hunting when he meets Arawn, king of the dead. Blodeuedd and Gronw meet during a stag hunt and begin their illicit affair

Many of the otherwordly figures as well as the animals encountered in the tales are described as radiant, shiny and fair beyond comparison. Pwyll thought of Arawn’s court, ‘the most beautifully adorned buildings anyone had ever seen’, his war-band had ‘the fairest and best-equipped men that anyone had ever seen’, and the queen was ‘the most beautiful woman that anyone had ever seen’. He found the queen to be ‘the most noble woman and most gracious of disposition and discourse he had ever seen’, and the court had ‘the most food and drink and golden vessels and royal jewels.’

Teyrnon’s horse was described as ‘no stallion or mare was more handsome.’ And the three magical birds of Rhiannon made ‘all other birdsong sound harsh by comparison’. When Peyderi attempts to persuade Manawydan to wed his mother, he says  ‘you have never heard a woman converse better than Rhiannon. When she was in her prime no woman was more beautiful’. And Manawydan thiks ‘he had never seen a woman who was fairer or more beautiful than her’. Lleu is presented as  ‘the most handsome lad that anyone had ever seen’ and Blodeuwedd is ‘the fairest and most beautiful maiden that anyone had ever seen.’

One of the staples of the Otherwold is the relativity of space and time which  never ceases exciting the human imagination. Flowing both faster and slower, time seems to follow edicts of its own and space eludes being defined or pinned down on any specific map, creating something of a sui generis.

Rhiannon’s horse cannot be overtaken no matter how fast or slow one pursues it
and yet, at the same time it appears to be moving slowly.

The different course of time becomes abundantly clear when the survivors against the Irish spend eighty years at Gwales, yet they do not age and are not aware of such a long passage, whilst Bran’s severed head remains intact and able to converse freely and entertain his companions. Rhiannon’s three magical birds warble their notes, yet no matter how distand their song sounds, the survivors perceive it,  ‘as clear as if the birds were there with them.’

A year and a day appears to be a liminal timeframe in the Mabinogion as many important events are arranged within that slot. But other dates carry significance as well. May Eve was traditionally the cusp of the Celtic year, the time when each year Teyrnon’s mare births a foal. But also the time Arthur in the tale of Culwch and Olwen decides upon the battle between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr for the denouement of their love triangle with Creidyladd. Possibly a symbolic strife between the personification of the summer and winter god.

Protected: The Fruit of Passion: Chapter 24 – Part I

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below: