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.