A Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar, Lewis Spence dedicated decades of his life to Celtic culture and its occult belief and practices. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain is fruit of such passion where Spence proves the predisposition of the Celtic peoples to the arcane, otherwordly and mysterious throughout the centuries, from ancient times to the modern era.
Proud to be part of the Celtic race and with a profound love and devotion to every subject he explores, Spence proceeds to analyze painstakingly account after account, episode after episode and anecdote after anecdote with respect and a clear head. Having divided his opus in fourteen sections, he begins by introducing the notion of magic and defining its meaning as the Celts perceived it and lived it in their lifetime. Of particular interest are the ways the entire magical system manifested in the case of the Druids and the prowess and skills they possessed when employing it.
We’re told the Druids were rumored to raise fogs, call forth fire and blood from the heavens, cause storms and be baleful polymorphs themselves. Just like we’re made aware of the draught of forgetfulness and the use of the magic wand, the silver branch and the stone of Lia Fail, the story of the dragons of British myth and the tales of Vortigern and Ambrosius Merlin. Of magical weapons and the ability to raise people from amongst the dead, of the fire-walking skill and the magical cups.
Spence is concerned with the problem of Druidry and presents the debate going on around said topic. The origins of the Druids as well as mentions of them in the classical sources are discussed at length with the Scottish author examining their existence in Britain, Wales, Ireland and other parts of the world besides Gaul. Though he’s of the opinion that the cradle of it was in Gaul and proposes the Iberian theory regarding their origins. The tenets and characteristics of Druidry are brought forth along with the mention of female figures amongst the caste, with emphasis on the tales of the Druidesses of the Loire and the isle of Sena.
A bevy of spells and charms are illustrated, among them the Irish geas, the spell of fith-fath along with spells of invisibility and those associated with fire. The narrative of the salmon of knowledge is recounted as well as the significance of the feast of Samhain, the chapter ending with the mention of various herbs and magical stones as protective charms.
Spence focuses on the following chapter on the magical books of the Celts, containing prose and poetry of mystical significance, like the Stones of Gwyddon, The Battle of the Trees, Avellenau, the Carmina Gadelica, the Black Book of Caermarthen and others. An intriguing story concerns The Red Book of Appin, whose genesis and history are steeped in strange circumstances.
The Celts, we’re shown, throughout their culture have forged a special fellowship with and affinity for the supernatural world, more than any other race. The spirit world of the Celtic imagination is vast and houses in its bosom a bevy of eerie and unearthly beings such as ghosts, banshees, kelpies, leprecauns, brownies and waterhorses. Of the most celebrated of these creatures in literature and legend are Gwyn ap Nudd and his hounds who presage the Wild Hunt and the Tylwyth Teg, one of the many names the fairies respond to.
Spence talks extensively of the cult of the fairies and their importance in the Celtic imagined reality. He proposes the theory of the fairies being either elementary spirits or ancestral ghosts haunting mounds, though the possibility of them being the spirits of the dead awaiting reincarnation or even those of the Druids isn’t excluded from contemplation.
Necromancy, prophecy and divination have been famous practices throughout the Celtic peoples. However, true instances of necromancy provide a different manner of conception and practice in comparison to other cultures like the ancient Greek. For the Celts didn’t resort to attempts of raising the dead with the purpose of asking them questions about the future. Rather they communicated with the spirit world to divine it. Augury and divination was achieved through various means such as the flight of birds, especially the raven and wren, the movement of the flames of fire and through other animals like the hare. Just like it could be achieved through crystal-gazing and the druidical elucidator.
The belief in reincarnation is a complex and riveting subject among the Celts, one strongly associated with the teachings of the Druids. Spence draws a comparison with the doctrine of reincarnation as analyzed by the ancient Greek figure of Pythagoras, in the end rejecting that either culture influenced the other in that respect. Spence argues the concept of Pythagorean reincarnation enjoyed only a brief lifespan and was limited only to the ancient Greek world, a fact that makes it impossible for the Druids to have come in contact with it or for the Druids themselves to have influenced the ancient Greek philosopher in that regard.
The most significant difference between the two lies in the fact that Pythagoras viewed reincarnation as a means of punishment and expiation for the sins a person committed, where they were forced after death to enter various circles of existence as animals until they cleansed themselves of their offenses and reached a state of purity. The Druids, however, put forth no such creed, believing that after the physical death, a person was reborn as his/her offspring (initially that referred only to royalty and bore an immediate association with the cult of the sun worship but later it spread to common people as well) or inhabited rocks, trees and other natural objects.
Another captivating concept in which Spence insists is that of the divine kingship and the ritual sacrifice of the divine king, which he declares was adopted by the Celts from the cult of the divine king the way it was celebrated in Egypt, one associated with a fertitility and sun cultus.
Various facets of Celtic mysticism are highlighted, some of them sprung from the druidic caste, such as its inherent philosophy, its spirituality and the unity of the Godhead implicit in its doctrine. The oak featured as a sacred tree for the Druids, and the cult of it was one of the most famous amongst the Celts, bearing stunning similarities both with the fertility cult and that of the divine kingship.
The mistletoe, along with the oak, was revered, its arcane significance rendering it a symbol of fertility and creating a connection with the silver branch of Celtic legend. Spence further talks about the Druids, citing the classical sources regarding human sacrifices, methods of sacrifice, victims immolated in wicker cages and divination from the sacrificial victims.
Although most of the written accounts of Iolo Morganwg are nothing but pure forgery, Spence focuses on the circles of life as Morganwg discussed them in his work. Regarding reincarnation, four states of being exist that reveal influence from the Pythagorean philosophy: Annwn (lowest state, Hades or Fairyland) Abred (probation state), Gwynfyd (perfect liberty) and Ceugant (infinity).
The mysticism of the Celts is further explored through their penchant for astrology, the hunting of the wren and the various bird-forms many figures assume in British mythology. Spence, disappointed by the many poor translations of ancient and medieval Celtic literary works, attempts to trace the origins of some of the characters appearing in Celtic myth and legend such as Arianhod, Dylan, Hu, Taliesin Ceridwen and Beli.
He returns once again to Morganwg’s states of being and explores the Otherworld of the British myth and legend as it is presented in the poem attributed to Taliesin, The Spoils of Annwn. Annwn’s mystical nature is brought forth along with the importance of its many otherwordly fortresses.
Spence makes a commendable attempt to unearth the origin of the Arthurian myth. Putting forth a compelling theory, Spence declares the figure of Arthur belongs more to mythology than to history. He identifies him with the god Bran and proposes that Arthur was the object of a cult. We’re told that the figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus was probably a historical person, a Romano-British noble, a general who fought against the Saxons.
Perhaps it was him who founded the cult of Arthur. Both a solar deity and one of war who aided the Celts in the dark years of foreign invasion, infusing them with patriotic enthusiasm and the strength required to fight against the foreign conquerors. What’s even more enticing is the connection Spence points out between Arthur and Osiris and the wounded Fisher King.
Spence sheds light on the figure of Osiris, presenting him as a deity existing in a state between life and death, asleep until called to awaken. Just like Arthur who, residing in the isle of Avallon, awaits to wake to life and aid Britain in its hour of need. Additionally, Spence states that Arthur and the Fisher king are one and the same, for Arthur lies wounded, his injury between the thighs symbolizing his sins and the loss of fertility of the land caused by them. A punishment for his trangressions and his fall from the status of the divine king.
Of course, when the Arthurian myth takes the spotlight, its companion, the Holy Grail, always demands equal attention. Spence proceeds to explain its etymology and origins and presents the Christian narrative of the Last Supper and the role of Joseph of Arimathea. He argues with conviction that the Holy Grail is nothing more but the pearl-rimmed cauldron Arthur braved the depths of Annwn to possess as the tale is narrated in the poem, The Spoils of Annwn, and when the Christian faith started spreading over the British isles, its representatives found an already fertile ground sown with a multitude of Celtic sources which they tinged with their own perspective.
Spence focuses on its presence in the early romances and its association with Glastonbury. He explores the quest the knights undertake to find the Holy Grail (many of whom take on the the transformed names of British gods) as well as the secret words associated with it, drawing parallels with the story of king Amangons and his offence against the well-maidens whose cups he stole, cups which take on the symbolic role of the Holy Grail.
Spence concludes with his last chapter dedicated to the phenomenon of the second sight. He provides us with numerous episodes of people possessing such a gift, claiming such cases take place in Scotland, though not exclusively. He offers the opinion of others about whether the second sight is a condition of hereditary magic or not as well as evidence from Scottish sources that prove that it was originally employed as a means of coming in contact with the fairies.
If the second sight was an ability that could be taught, Spence views it as a cultus instituted by an ancient caste, probably of druidic origin. A method used by the Druids with the purpose of opening up a portal of communication with the Celtic gods.
Undoutedly, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain is a grand and stunning opus, the result of an author whose soul flamed with the romance and poetry of the Celtic race. Throughout its pages, we’re exposed to a compelling, fascinating and thoroughly researched study on a plethora of topics that revolve around the colourful and dreamy magico-religious system of the Celts.
Spence presents an abundance of material to back up his claims and prove his theories, rendering the book a tapestry of erudition whose manifold threads are meant to bring to light the very blood that pumps into the Celtic heart and satisfy even the most cantakerous readers.
Gwydion Conquers Pryderi by E. Wallcousins
In the first and second part of my essay, The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part I), The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part II), I explored the notion of the otherworld and the way it is described in the titular work, focusing on themes like the relativity of space and time, the frequent marvelous incidents, various magical objects, the supernatural aspect of many of the characters etc.
In this third and last part, I’ll discuss the remaining recurrent motifs and concepts that appear in the tales, wrapping up with the way I’ve incorporated the idea of the otherworld in my own mythic fantasy novel as well as the characters, objects and episodes that run throughout these colourful and fanciful stories.
Shape-shifting and transformation, either from human to animal or from the aspect of one person to another, is a staple of the magico-religious belief system of the Celts, one that frequently shows up throughout the Celtic literature. One of the most celebrated cases with interesting and funny ramifications is the physical exchange between the otherwordly king, Arawn, and the prince of Dyved, Pwyll, where each man takes the semblance and form of the other. Something which causes worry to Arawn’s wife when the transformed Pwyll refuses to have intercourse with her for a year and a day. An element that bears some similarities with the deception of Uther Pendragon and the birth of Arthur, stripped of its darker undertones though.
Rhiannon and Pryderi vanish in a magical fashion when they enter the fort in Dyved. While not a transformation in the traditional sense of the word, this recalls to mind the motif of the fairy houses that disappear at dawn along with the comic episodes of people stuck to a magic basin.
People turning into mice is another common theme, one we read in the third branch where Llwyd has transformed his entire court, his pregnant wife included, into rodents with the purpose of attacking and carrying away Manawydan’s crops of wheat.
In another tale, we see the narrative device of the tripartite repetition when the brothers Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are transformed into a pair of deer, then pigs and finally wolves, a punishment meted out by their uncle, king Math, for having raped his virgin foot-holder, Goewin. Genders are exchanged and the pair bears three offspring whom Math takes under his wing later.
A series of specific animals are strongly associated with the otherworld. The hunting of the stag is a significant topic in Celtic tradition and the appearance of said animal, as seen in the first branch, functions as an omen for the coming of a supernatural event. The Cŵn Annwn or Arawn’s dogs bear a special place in Celtic and especially Welsh tradition. ”Gleaming shining white” and red-eared, they are the hounds of King Arawn, protagonists of the Wild Hunt and heralds of tumultuous chaos and death.
In the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, the adar Rhiannon are mentioned, birds possessing the ability to ”wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”. In the second branch, they comfort the surviving warriors from the battle against the Irish, appearing at a distance from Harlech even though their song ”was as clear as if the birds were near”.
Boars are another species that indicate the presence of the otherworld or the approach of some event or character of supernatural nature. The enchanted boar, Twrch Trwyth, literally leads Arthur and his warband in a merry chase after him. The ”gleaming white boar” in branch three shows the way to Manawydan and Pryderi to the fort where the latter vanishes along with Rhiannon.
Pigs feature as a royal gift from king Arawn to Pryderi, symbolic of their friendship that creates a bond between the human world and the otherworld. In the fourth branch, the trickster Gwydion steals them and incites a war with many lives lost. Later, Gwydion himself is transformed into a pig through Math’s intervention as punishment and when Gwydion’s nephew/son is transformed into an eagle, it’s a sow that leads Gwydion to him.
Throughout the Mabinogion, specific colours appear to hold distinct significance, functioning as otherwordly portents. Red, white and gold/yellow are associated either with certain characters or objects and animals originating in the otherworld. Arawn’s hounds are depicted as ”gleaming shining white” with red ears. ”And as the whiteness of the dogs shone so did the redness of their ears.” The Wild Hunt, whose head later changes to the figure of Gwyn ap Nudd, includes similar beasts.
British scholar Rachel Bromwhich stresses that this pair of colours have, also, been employed by royalty and according to Welsh laws, the lord of Dinefwr and the king of Aberffraw should enjoy red and white cattle as compensation.
The animals bearing such colours on their physical aspect function as harbingers of a supernatural occurrence and can be traced throughout the collection, as shows the case of the ”gleaming white boar” in the third branch and the ”gleaming shining white”, red-eared hounds that foreshadow king Arawn’s arrival.
Yellow/gold is often associated with the physical traits of the characters, but not only. While present in Arawn’s court, Pwyll is clad in ”a golden garment of brocaded silk”; Arawn’s wife and queen is dressed in ”a golden garment of shining brocaded silk.” The vessels from which the court is drinking are made out of gold.
When Rhiannon first appears atop her horse at the mound, she’s wearing ”a shining golden garment of brocaded silk”, and upon Teyrnon noticing her baby son, ”all the hair on his head was yellow as gold”. In the second branch, Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid emerges from the lake with ”yellow-red hair’. In the native tale of Culwch ac Olwen, the titular heroine is vividly described with a head of hair ”more yellow than the flower of the broom.”
In the third branch, Pryderi and Rhiannon vanish in a magical blanket of mist upon laying their hands on a golden bowl in the fort. Finally, the trickster Gwydion lures Pryderi with baits in the form of golden collars, bridles, leashes and saddles with gold trimmings along with twelve golden shields.
Undoutedly, the otherworld brings forth a whimsical reality that takes central stage in the Celtic tradition, functioning both as a separate entity and as a mirror that reflects anxieties, worries, concerns, ideas, beliefs and customs of the mortal plane of the medieval era. It is a world teeming with magic and fantasy, where the natural and the supernatural intermingle in a blissful marriage, where the laws of nature are flouted and the humans interact with the fairies and the dead carte blanche and vice versa.
Many of the otherwordly elements found in the tales of the Mabinogion do not belong exclusively to the Celtic tradition, but derive from the vast treasure chest of an international body of folkloric notions and beliefs. The narratives comprising the collection present an amalgamation of mythology, literature, oral tradition, history and socio-political ideals of the ancient and medieval era.
Originally sung by bards, the tales reflect the collective memory of ancient storytelling traditions, a fact that contributes to the crafting of the otherworld in the collection as a bizarre yet familiar place. A place where the uncanny reigns without restrictions, bringing together the fantastic and the mundane into a singular melange where the distinction between the two is rendered impossible.
In my own mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, I deliberately followed as faithfully as possible this manner of depiction of the otherworld, desiring that the future readers be able to enjoy a tradition already known to them. However, I, also, took care to birth the otherwordly realm in a manner that would make it a separate entity from the one featured in the Mabinogion. For I saw no reason to simply copy and paste something that has already been explored and studied.
My own otherworld, which I’ve named ”the lost lands”, consists of a cluster of isles inhabited by the fairies, the dead and a host of otherwordly denizens who physically resemble humans but are of superior strength and possess magical abilities without exception. Though not immortal, their lifespan is longer than that of humans and they can fall prey to their own weaknesses and quirks. Considering them a vehicle to explore human complexity and behaviour, I made all my otherwordly characters as intricate as their mortal counterparts. Friendships, alliances and romances have bound mortal and otherwordly creatures together just like wars and enmities have torn them apart.
The otherwordly isles are separated from the human world by a veil or glamour which can be thinned or dissolved at liminal time frames like during the feast of Samhain (for which I’ve used the term Calan Gaeaf) and the feast of Beltaine (for which I’ve used the term Calan Haf). However, traffic can be generated between the two realms through other means as well when spells and enchantments are employed. Mounds, rivers, lakes, caves and forests are portals than can guarantee access to them.
Written down on no maps, their location cannot be traced and one can be led to them only through magic. Floating in their own time sequence, they remain ageless, and an hour there can signify mere moments or entire years in the human world. Some of them know the presence of sunset and sunrise while others are steeped in the blue hour or feel only the smile of the rising sun. Vast expanses of forest cover their ground where running waters always moisten them beneath the flowing light of spring or summer.
Nightingales, lapwings and starlings, serpents and stags and wolves, these are some of the animals that interact with the characters, either bringing them messages, leading them from one place to another or warning them of danger.
Swords and cauldrons and goblets, lockets and various vessels are infused with magic, helping the heroes in their various exploits.
As I mentioned above, alliances are a theme I’ve incorporated in my narrative. But these alliances are not given freely. Both mortal and otherwordly characters require a boon, some sort of exchange in order to strike a bargain. Which is usual the retrieval of a magical object or a political agreement a king/queen demands in order to deal with an issue that has arisen in the kingdom.
The theme of life and death and the divide between these two conditions is a recurrent one in my narrative. The realm of the dead, presided by king Arawn, can be reached by mortals but certain conditions must be met. The mortal seeking a loved one must never reveal what was spoken during the sojourn in Annwn. Just like the dead aren’t allowed to speak of the goings of Annwn should they roam the human world. Should this be violated, terrible consequences await those who break their oath.
No matter what, the realm of the otherworld is an exciting, dreamy and entertaining one that both fascinates and puzzles the modern readers in the most delightful ways, as much it fascinated and puzzled those during the medieval times. Scintillating, fanciful, bewitching and uncanny, it continues to lure us with its secrets, secrets that whisper to us about what lies in the depths of the human psyche, daring us to sunder the veil and peer into the eternal truth.
Blodeuwedd meets Gronw Pebr,
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.
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.
The Celtic Oltherworld, known as Annwn in the Welsh tradition and mythology, was the abode of the fairies and the dead. Not a compact, unified land, it consisted of various territories conceived as islands in the imagined Celtic reality where no old age or sickness threatened their denizens, food was always abundant and spring/summer always reigned.
Many of these otherwordly domains feature prominently in the Mabinogion. This post focuses on the first part of the first branch, narrating the tale of Pwyll, Princed of Dyfed, his venturing into the realm of Annwn and his lifelong friendship with King Arawn.
Presented here is a retelling of the story of the time Pwyll of Dyfed spent in Annwfn in the body of Arawn. It is the first part of the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed or Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, which is the First Branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It tells how he and Arawn became friends and of his sojourn in Annwfn.
Pwyll of Dyfed
One day as Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed was out hunting in the region of Glyn Cuch his hounds raised a stag. The stag took off at great speed with the hounds hard on its trail and Pwyll spurred his horse forward in pursuit sounding his hunting horn. The stag was moving fast but the hounds were keeping up and he was keeping up with the hounds. In the speed and excitement of the chase…
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