Book Review: The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain

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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.

The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part III)

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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.

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.

Welsh Mythology: Pwyll’s Sojourn in Annwfn

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.

Under the influence!

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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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Otherwordly Encounter: Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

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One of the most noted festivals that held great importance in the ancient Celtic world was that of Samhain. It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter or ”the darker half” of the year. As the Celtic day began and ended at sunset, the feast was celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, halfway betwen the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. 

Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Similar festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany), both Celtic branches as old as each other.

Although, it was a feast during which the living welcomed back the spirits of their dead ancestors, Samhain was not celebrated in a gloomy mood. Livestock was slaughtered, the bones used for divination. Great fires were lit and food was prepared for the ancestors who would momentarily return back to their homes and families.

However, Samhain marked a period of liminality where the barriers of space and time were broken. The veil between this world and the Otherworld was torn and, along with the dead, fairies and all manners of magical creatures roamed upon the earth. 

Below you will read an excerpt from one of the four branches of the Mabinogion translated by Lady Charlotte Guest that narrates such an otherwordly encounter between Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, and Arawn, king of the dead in Annwn, the Celtic Otherwold.

Pwyll Prince of Dyved was lord of the seven Cantrevs of Dyved; and once upon a time he was at Narberth his chief palace, and he was minded to go and hunt, and the part of his dominions in which it pleased him to hunt was Glyn Cuch. So he set forth from Narbeth that night, and went as far as Llwyn Diarwyd. And that night he tarried there, and early on the morrow he rose and came to Glyn Cuch, when he let loose the dogs in the wood, and sounded the horn, and began the chase. And as he followed the dogs, he lost his companions; and whilst he listened to the hounds, he heard the cry of other hounds, a cry different from his own, and coming in the opposite direction.

And he beheld a glade in the wood forming a level plain, and as his dogs came to theedge of the glade, hesaw a stag before the other dogs. And lo, as it reached the middle of the glade, the dogs that followed the stag overtook it and brought it down. Then looked he at the colour of the dogs, staying not to look at the stag, and of all the hounds that he had seen in the world, he had never seen any that were like unto these. For their hair was of a brilliant shining white, and their ears were red; and as the whiteness of their bodies
shone, so did the redness of their ears glisten. And he came towards the dogs, and drove away those that had brought down the stag, and set his own dogs upon it.

And as he was setting on his dogs he saw a horseman coming towards him upon a large light−grey steed, with a hunting horn round his neck, and clad in garments of grey woollen in the fashion of a hunting garb. And the horseman drew near and spoke unto him thus. “Chieftain,” said he, “I know who thou art, and I greet thee not.”

“Peradventure,” said Pwyll, “thou art of such dignity that thou shouldest not do so.”

“Verily,” answered he, “it is not my dignity that prevents me.” “What is it then, O Chieftain?” asked he.

“By Heaven, it is by reason of thine own ignorance and want of courtesy.”

“What discourtesy, Chieftain, hast thou seen in me?”

“Greater discourtesy saw I never in man,” said he, “than to drive away the dogs that
were killing the stag and to set upon it thine own. This was discourteous, and though I may not be revenged upon thee, yet I declare to Heaven that I will do thee more dishonour than the value of an hundred stags.”

“O Chieftain,” he replied, “if I have done ill I will redeem thy friendship.”

“How wilt thou redeem it?”

“According as thy dignity may be, but I know not who thou art?”

“A crowned king am I in the land whence I come.”

“Lord,” said he, “may the day prosper with thee, and from what land comest thou?”

“From Annwvyn,” answered he; “Arawn, a King of Annwvyn, am I.”

“Lord,” said he, “how may I gain thyfriendship?”

“After this manner mayest thou,” he said. “There is a man whose dominions are opposite to mine, who is ever warring against me, and he is Havgan, a King of Annwvyn, and by ridding me of thisoppression, which thou canst easily do, shalt thou gain my friendship.”

“Gladly will I do this,” said he.

“Show me how I may.”

“I will show thee. Behold thus it is thou mayest. I will make firm friendship with thee; and this will I do. I will send thee to Annwvyn in my stead, and I will give thee the fairest lady thou didst ever behold to be thy companion, and I will put my form and semblance upon thee, so that not a page of the chamber, nor an officer, nor any other man that has always followed me shall know that it is not I. And this shall be for the space of a year from to−morrow, and then we will meet in this place.”

“Yes,” said he; “but when I shall have been there for the space of a year, by what means shall I discover him of whom thouspeakest?”

“One year from this night,” he answered, “is the time fixed between him and me that we should meet at the Ford; be thou there in my likeness, and with one stroke that thou givest him, he shall no longer live. And if he ask thee to give him another, give it not, how much soever he may entreat thee, for when I did so, he fought with me next day as well as ever before.”

“Verily,” said Pwyll, “what shall I do concerning my kingdom?”

Said Arawn, “I will cause that no one in all thy dominions, neither man nor woman, shall
know that I am not thou, and I will go there in thy stead.”

“Gladly then,” said Pwyll, “will I set forward.”

“Clear shall be thy path, and nothing shall detain thee, until thou come into my dominions, and I myself will be thy guide!”

So he conducted him until he came in sight of the palace and its dwellings. “Behold,” said he, “the Court and the kingdom in thy power. Enter the Court, there is no one there who will know thee, and when thou seest what service is done there, thou wilt know the customs of the Court.”

So he went forward to the Court, and when he came there, he beheld sleeping−rooms, and halls, and chambers, and the most beautiful buildings ever seen. And he went into the hall to disarray, and there came youths and pages and disarrayed him, and all as they entered saluted him. And two knights came and drew his hunting−dress from about him, and clothed him in a vesture of silk and gold. And the hall was prepared, and behold he saw the household and the host enter in, and the host was the most comely and the best
equipped that he had ever seen. And with them came in likewise the Queen, who was the fairest woman that he had ever yet beheld. And she had on a yellow robe of shining satin; and they washed and went to the table, and sat, the Queen upon one side of him, and one who seemed to be an Earl on the other side.

And he began to speak with the Queen, and he thought, from her speech, that she was the seemliest and most noble lady of converse and of cheer that ever was. And they partook of meat, and drink, with songs and with feasting; and of all the Courts upon the earth, behold this was the best supplied with food and drink, and vessels of gold and royal jewels.

And the year he spent in hunting, and minstrelsy, and feasting, and diversions, and discourse with his companions until the night that was fixed for the conflict. And when that night came, it was remembered even by those who lived in the furthest part of his dominions, and he went to the meeting, and the nobles of the kingdom with him. And when he came to the Ford, a knight arose and spake thus. “Lords,” said he, “listen well. It is between two kings that this meeting is, and between them only. Each claimeth of the other his land and territory, and do all of you stand aside and leave the fight to be between them.”

Thereupon the two kings approached each other in the middle of the Ford, and encountered, and at the first thrust, the man who was in the stead of Arawn struck Havgan on the centre of the boss of his shield, so that it was cloven in twain, and his armour was broken, and Havgan himself was borne to the ground an arm’s and a
spear’s length over the crupper of his horse, and he received a deadly blow. “O Chieftain,” said Havgan, “what right hast thou to cause my death? I was not injuring thee in anything, and I know not wherefore thou wouldest slay me. But, for the love of Heaven, since thou hast begun to slay me, complete thy work.”

“Ah, Chieftain,” he replied, “I may yet repent doing that unto thee, slay thee who may, I will not do so.”

“My trusty Lords,” said Havgan, “bear me hence. My death has come. I shall be no more able to uphold you.”

“My Nobles,” also said he who was in the semblance of Arawn, “take counsel and know who ought to be my subjects.”

“Lord,” said the Nobles, “all should be, for there is no king over the whole of Annwvyn but thee.”

“Yes,” he replied, “it is right that he who comes humbly should be received graciously, but he that doth not come with obedience, shall be compelled by the force of swords.” And thereupon he received the homage of the men, and he began to conquer the country; and the next day by noon the two kingdoms were in his power. And thereupon he went to keep his tryst, and came to Glyn Cuch.

And when he came there, the King of Annwvyn was there to meet him, and each of them was rejoiced to see the other. “Verily,” said Arawn, “may Heaven reward thee for thy friendship towards me. I have heard of it. When thou comest thyself to thy dominions,” said he, “thou wilt see that which I have done for thee.”

“Whatever thou hast done for me, may Heaven repay it thee.”

Then Arawn gave to Pwyll Prince of Dyved his proper form and semblance, and he himself took his own; and Arawn set forth towards the Court of Annwvyn; and he was rejoiced when he beheld his hosts, and his household, whom he had not seen so long; but they had not known of his absence, and wondered no more at his coming than usual. And that day was spent in joy and merriment; and he sat and conversed with his wife
and his nobles. And when it was time for them rather to sleep than to carouse, they went to rest.

Pwyll Prince of Dyved came likewise to his country and dominions, and began to inquire of the nobles of the land, how his rule had been during the past year, compared with what it had been before. “Lord,” said they, “thy wisdom was never so great, and thou wast never so kind or so free in bestowing thy gifts, and thy justice was never more worthily seen than in this year.”

“By Heaven,” said he, “for all the good you have enjoyed, you should thank him who hath been with you; for behold, thus hath this matter been.” And thereupon Pwyll related the whole unto them.

“Verily, Lord,” said they, “render thanks unto Heaven that thou hast such a fellowship, and withhold not from us the rule which we have enjoyed for this year past.”

“I take Heaven to witness that I will not withhold it,” answered Pwyll.

And thenceforth they made strong the friendship that was between them, and each sent unto the other horses, and greyhounds, and hawks, and all such jewels as they thought would be pleasing to each other. And by reason of his having dwelt that year in Annwvyn, and having ruled there so prosperously, and united the two kingdoms in one day by his valour and prowess, he lost the name of Pwyll Prince of Dyved, and was called
Pwyll Chief of Annwvyn from that time forward.

 

 

A Grave for Pryderi

From Peneverdant

In Aber Gwenoli
Lies the grave of Pryderi
The Stanzas of the Graves

He was buried in Maentwrog, above Y Felenrhyd, and his grave is there
The Fourth Branch

In autumn last year I visited Aber Gwenoli in Coed Felinrhyd, the village of Maentrwog, and the Coedydd Maentwrog. These locations are all part of Snowdonia’s Atlantic oak woodland or temperate rain forest and are associated with the death of Pryderi, ‘Care’ or ‘Worry’, the son of Pwyll and Rhiannon.

Dyffryn Maentwrog Med

Pryderi is the only character who appears in all four branches of The Mabinogion. This has led scholars to speculate he may be the central figure. If this is the case he is a hapless kind of ‘hero’. Although he enjoys success in battle, he is constantly in trouble, sometimes on account of forces beyond his control, at others because of his impetuousness and lack of discernment…

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Signpost to Annwn: Inhabitants

From Peneverdant

mathew-schwartz-unsplash

This post begins to list the inhabitants of Annwn: deities, guardians, otherworldly animals who move between the worlds, and denizens regarded as monstrous. It’s notable that many of these Annuvian figures are opponents of Arthur and his warband who are hunted down and/or slaughtered.

Deities

The Head of Annwn

‘The cauldron of the Head of Annwn, what is its disposition
(with its) a dark trim, and pearls?’
– The Spoils of Annwn, The Book of Taliesin, (Haycock transl.)

Arawn

‘He (Pwyll) could see a rider coming after the pack on a large dapple-grey horse, with a hunting horn round his neck, and wearing hunting clothes of a light grey material…

“Lord,” said Pwll, “good day to you. And which land do you come from?”

“From Annwfn,” he replied. “I am Arawn, king of Annwfn.’’

“Lord,” said Pwyll, “how shall I win your friendship?”

“This is how,” he replied. “A…

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