The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part I)

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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.

Cernunnos: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (Part II)

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The “Cernunnos” type antlered figure or “horned god”, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display, at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

In my essay Olwen: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic  I focused on the topic of forging a religiοus faith ab ovo based on mythology within a fantastic narrative. I especially touched on the mortal aspect of my mythic fantasy novel and explored the worship pertaining to my human characters.

As I’ve previously explained, Celtic motifs and perceptions abound in my work, so my cast of characters is quite miscellaneous. Therefore a number of races parade through the pages, bringing with them their own distinct beliefs and customs. I’ve essentially divided them into two groups: humans and otherwordly folk, the latter counting a cluster of kindred yet distinct nations.

The one that features prominently in my novel are the fairies or more specifically the faes as I’ve taken to calling them. Portrayed as wild and unpredictable but, also, passionate and instinctual, they are characterized by an immense joie de vivre, celebrating strength, nature, and the mysteries of life.

Keeping this psychological profile of theirs in mind, I wanted their divine cult to reflect all these qualities. And what deity could encapsulate them better than the Gaulish one named Cernunnos? For my human characters, I resorted to the The Mabinogion and the figure of Olwen, upgrading her status from a maiden with magical abilities to a divinity. However, for my fae characters there was no need to proceed likewise and fabricate a supreme being from scratch because the vision of the god I had conceived had already enjoyed once a real-life, historical basis.

But who is this fascinating deity and which are his origins?

In Celtic studies, Cernunnos is the conventional name ascribed to depictions of the horned god of Celtic polytheism. Predominantly worshipped amongst the Celtic tribes of Gaul and the Iberian peninsula, multiple examples of his imagery have been found, dating from the Gallo-Romam period. His illustrations typically present him with a pair of antlers, seated cross-legged and holding a torc or wearing it around his throat. His companions are often stags, horned serpents, dogs, bulls and rats, with the first two the most frequent.

Unfortunately, due to lack of surviving literary sources, not much is known about his name, worshippers or his significance in Celtic religion. However, Cernunnos is mostly associated with animals, nature and fertility.

His mame is spotted only on a Gallo-Roman monument, Pillar of the Boatmen, dating to the early 1st century CE.  The Proto-Celtic form of the theonym is reconstructed as either *Cerno-on-os or *Carno-on-os. The augmentative -on- is characteristic of theonyms, as in Maponos, Epona, Matronae, and Sirona. The etymology of Cernunnos is unclear, but seems to be rooted in the Celtic word for “horn” or “antler” (as in Carnonos).

The Gaulish word karnon “horn” is cognate with Latin cornu and Germanic *hurnaz, English horn, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *k̑r̥no-. The etymon karn- “horn” appears in both Gaulish and Galatian branches of Continental Celtic. Hesychius of Alexandria glosses the Galatian word karnon (κάρνον) as “Gallic trumpet”, that is, the Celtic military horn known as the carnyx (κάρνυξ) by Eustathius of Thessalonica, who notes the instrument’s animal-shaped bell. The root also appears in the names of Celtic polities, most prominent among them the Carnutes, its meaning akin to “the Horned Ones”.

A comparison has, also, been drawn to a divine epithet Carnonos in a Celtic inscription written in Greek characters at Montagnac, Hérault (as καρνονου, karnonou, in the dative case) along with a Gallo-Latin adjective carnuātus that has, also, been found.

Now displayed in the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris, the Pillar of the Boatmen monument was discovered in 1710 within the foundations of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, site of ancient Lutetia, the civitas capital of the Celtic Parisii. A strong hypothesis suggests it was originally constructed by Gaulish sailors in 14 CE.

The singular stone pillar holds a significant position as monument in the Gallo-Roman religion. Roman deities such as Jupiter, Vulcan, Castor and Pollux along with Gallic deities such as Esus, Smertrios, Tavros and Triganarus are depicted and labelled by name on its low reliefs. The name Cernunnos can be read clearly on 18th century drawings of the inscriptions, but the initial letter has been obscured since, so that today only a reading [_]ernunnos can be verified.

The god identified as Cernunnos in this monument is depicted with stag’s antlers, both having torcs hanging from them. The lower part of the relief is now lost to us, but the dimensions imply that the god was sitting cross-legged,  a direct parallel to the antlered figure crafted on the Gundestrup cauldron.

Due to the Gundestrup Cauldron, some scholars describe Cernunnos as the “Lord of the Animals” or the “Lord of Wild Things”, with Miranda Green describing him as a “peaceful god of nature and fruitfulness”, his stance suggesting  traditional shamans often depicted surrounded by animals.

Through the Pillar of Boatmen, Cerunnos is associated with sailors and commence, an obvious link to material wealth, something supported by the the coin pouch from the Cernunnos of Rheims (Marne, Champagne, France)—in antiquity, Durocortorum, the civitas capital of the Remi tribe—and the stag vomiting coins from Niedercorn-Turbelslach (Luxembourg) in the lands of the Treveri. The god may have symbolized the fecundity of the stag-inhabited forest.

Horned or antlered figures feature amongst the Celtiberians, too. For example,  there’s a “Janus-like” god from Candelario (Salamanca) with two faces and two small horns,  a horned god from the hills of Ríotinto (Huelva); and a possible representation of the deity Vestius Aloniecus near his altars in Lourizán (Pontevedra). The horns are thought to symbolize “aggressive power, genetic vigor and fecundity.”

Attempts have been made to link Cernunnos to Conall Cernach, the foster brother of the Irish hero Cuchulainn in the Ulster Cycle by virtue of the cern root in his name.  Cernach is taken as an epithet with a wide semantic field—”angular; victorious; bearing a prominent growth”—and Conall is seen as “the same figure” as the ancient deity of Cernunnos.

However, there exists more evidence than merely their etymological connection. In a passage in the  eighth-century story entitled Táin Bó Fraích (“The Cattle Raid on Fraech”) Conall Cernach is portrayed as a hero and mighty warrior who assists the protagonist, Fraech, in rescuing his wife and son, and in reclaiming for Fraech his cattle. The fort that Conall must penetrate is guarded by a formidable serpent. The tale, however, ends on an anti-climatic note when the fearsome serpent, instead of attacking Conall, darts to Conall’s waist and girdles him as a belt. Rather than slaying the serpent, Conall allows it to live, and then proceeds to attack and rob the fort of its great treasures the serpent previously protected.

By virtue of interpretatio romana, Cernunnos is seen as the Gaulish manifestation of the Roman Dis Pater, sharing the latter’s responsibility of ruling over the hidden treasures of the underworld. Treasures located underground were associated with the serpent in Medieval Bestiaries that guarded the otherworld and all its treasures and mysteries.

Cernunnos is depicted on a stone statue from a well in Sommerécourt, Haute-Marne, France, and on a bronze figurine from Autun. Both statue and figurine portray Cernunnos with the two ram-headed serpents encircling his waist. It’s no accident then that the serpent that guarded the treasure of the fort in Táin Bó Fraích yielded to Conall Cernach and became his actual, living belt. The anti-climax of the Táin Bó Fraích‘s end sheds light on the link between a horned or antler-bearing deity, warrior, or progenitor, and the chthonic dwelling, treasure-guarding serpent that girdled the waist of the one it chose to protect.

Some of Cernunnos’ qualties are reflected on the life of Saint Ciarán of Saighir, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who, upon the construction of his cell, accepted his first disciple and monk in the form of a boar that had been rendered gentle by God, the beast later joined by a fox, badger, wolf and stag.

Whether a god of fertility and the primordial call of the wild, a representation of material wealth and prosperity or the sacred keeper of the underworld, Cernunnos surely remains a fascinating and alluring figure, the mysteries of his cult now echoing in mythic narrations, patiently waiting to be unveiled and studied by those willing to dig deep enough to find the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Druids in Fact, Folklore and Fiction – Part One

For a couple of years now, if mot more, I’ve been around collecting material that will help me with my first attempt at my second novel. A work of historical fiction, it takes place during the reign of emperor Claudius and focuses partly on the terrible clash between the Romans and the Druids.

I’ve long harboured a strong fascination for all things Celtic and the subject of Druidry and the mysterious figures of the Druids is one that holds a special place in my heart.

After reading various books and academic articles written by archaeologists, historians and scholars on Celtic culture, in my online wanderings I stumbled upon this excellent blogpost that sheds light on the topic of Druidry and the role it played within the Celtic society. Well-researched, it offers a concise yet thorough overview on the Celts and their cultural, social and religious beliefs, the role of the Druids themselves, the sacrifices and religious rites they were involved in, the existence of female Druids and how these sage folk disappeared from the historical record and ended up the stuff of legend and folklore.

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The Horror of it All CategoryThe Druids in Fact, Folklore and Fiction – Part One

The Druids were a high-ranking priestly class among the Iron Age Celtic Peoples of Europe, they were at their most influential within Celtic society starting sometime between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE up until the 1st century CE when the Romans started to prohibit their activities. Little is actually known about the Druids and their practices for they kept no written records themselves, having a purely oral tradition. It is only from a few (probably biased) contemporary snippets of information given by Classical writers that any details can be gleaned, though perhaps also some can be (cautiously) deduced from later Early-Medieval British and Irish histories, myths and folktales, as well as from other surviving folklore that can be reasonably sourced to an ancient Celtic origin. Practically everything we know about the Druids is hugely debatable – and that even includes…

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Book Review: The Lion and the Lark

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Written by Doreen Owens Malek, The Lion and the Lark is a historical novel that takes place in 44 B.C. and focuses on the conquest of the isle of Britain by the military forces of Rome.

Right after the assassination of Julius Ceasar, the various Celtic tribes of the North instigate a successive wave of rebellion to break free from the Roman yoke. In the wake of such resistance, Octavian along with Mark Antony dispatch General Scipio and tribune Claudius Leonatus to Britain to quell the natives and further the Roman agenda.

In a political maneuver, it is decided that Claudius will enter into matrimony with Bronwen, the stunning princess of the Iceni tribe. And thus begins a journey of emotional upheaval and personal growth whose consequences nobody could have ever foreseen.

Malek is a writer with a keen eye for historical detail and, apart from a couple of inaccuracies, the novel is infused with the spirit of the ancient era. With colourful descriptions varying from ancient customs, clothes, food and cultural mentalities to the landscape of both Rome and Britain, the reader is transported back in a time and place where people were no less genuine, flawed, complex or humane than we are today.

With both sides intent on serving their own interests by attempting to outwit and outfight each other, the enemy suddenly ceases being a faceless monster and becomes a breathing person of flesh and blood. By marrying Claudius, Bronwen works as a spy for her tribe while the Romans consider her nothing more than a hostage in case the Iceni renege on their bargain.

Claudius, however, drawn to his wife’s beauty and vulnerability, proves to be much more than the brutal conqueror Bronwen had initially thought of, for beneath his national identity he’s a man of honour, capable of profound emotion and passion. Something which throws a spanner in Bronwen’s plans as she gradually realizes that things are not as clear-cut as they were supposed to be.

Deeply traumatized by her mother’s rape and death at the hands of the Romans, she initially refuses to peer beneath her husband’s exterior but Claudius’s gentle and respectful treatment of her is the catalyst that turns their marriage from a political agreement to a genuine bond of love and sensuality.

In a parallel fashion, the reader follows the progress of another couple as well, that of Brettix, the mighty warrior of the Iceni and brother to Bronwen, and Lucia, the young daughter of General Scipio. Captured as a slave on the battlefield during an uprising against the Romans, Brettix arranges with the slave trader to be sold as a horse trainer to Lucia so as to observe the comings and goings of the General and collect all the information he can get regarding the Romans.

But just like with his sister, things don’t go according to plan for Brettix either and he ends up getting much more than he had hoped for. Initially thinking of Lucia as a means to serve his cause, the more he spends time with her, the more attached he becomes for, although, spoiled, Lucia proves herself a woman of strong will and caring disposition. And what starts out as a self-serving deal soon develops into something deeper and much more meaningful, even though completely unexpected.

An important theme of the novel is that of moral ambiguity with various characters remarking how similar in some aspects the two cultures are, therefore highlighting the hypocrisy of the colonial perspective. Boundaries become blurred, and people respond with a sort of pathos and personal code that renders it impossible to strictly characterize them as either good or bad.

That is best evident with Claudius and Bronwen as when things escalate and the treaty between the two parties is considered null and void, both become victims of a tremendous inner conflict, torn between duty and love until they get to enjoy their happy ending after their much anguished tribulation.

The Lion and the Lark is a beautiful and moving novel that sweeps the reader into a world where the individual rises from the collective as a powerful and intricate force, preconceptions crumble, right and wrong becomes an elusive matter and the human factor takes central stage.