The vast majority of those with an interest in Welsh myth will only ever read source texts in translation and with no prior exposure to Welsh language or culture. This is important to bare in mind because on occasion the more subtle ideas contained in a text can be mangled beyond recognition by the translating process. Meaning can become fuzzy as sentences are deconstructed, broken down and then rebuilt in the language of a very different culture and world view. No matter how accurately individual words are translated, all of the meanings implied in a sentence won’t necessarily make it through to the other side.
This is why translation is as much art as it is technique; it should never be a simple process of referring to dictionary definitions (even though that’s where it inevitably begins). Doubtless this is why we trust only cherished poets and accomplished scholars to attempt this most difficult of diplomacies. The translation of one nation’s ancient treasures into the language of another is a great responsibility. Its an attempt to report accurately what is often only half-heard across the crackling wireless of the ages. To fail in that task, to misunderstand another’s words and instead hear nothing but our own assumptions about what is said is a constant danger. It is also, regrettably, unavoidable at times.
Through the focussed lens of one individual’s translation, others may attempt to understand the essence of a whole culture. Those of us who find ourselves attempting to build bridges across such divides, not only linguistic but also historical, are intimately aware of the limitations of that process, so much so that to ignore those limitations and not draw attention to them would be in many ways to betray the trust of those reliant upon our work. That is why the best translations always come with copious notes and commentary, this being the only way to reliably fill in the gaps in meaning. If a translation you’re reading doesn’t give an account of its reasoning, you must take it at face value. You must ask yourself whether you trust the translator or not. Even the best of translators and editors will make sweeping, unilateral decisions regarding context and meaning, for that is the nature of their work; that is the responsibility they have taken on.
Thankfully, by today we have some very good translations of Welsh texts, but even those will not always reflect the meaning of the original, sometimes because the original meaning can no longer be grasped, never mind translated.
Yn ystod hanner cyntaf yr 20fed ganrif roedd ysgolheigion yn credu mai gweddillion dryslyd hen fytholeg oedd y Pedair Cainc. Doedd Syr Ifor Williams, un o gewri’r cyfnod, ddim gwahanol yn hynny chwaith. Tybiodd mai straeon am Pryderi oedd y Pedair Cainc yn wreiddiol, yr unig gymeriad i ymddangos ym mhob cainc. Yn ei ragymadrodd i’w olygiad o destun Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, dangosodd mai un o ystyron canoloesol y term mabinogi oedd ‘campau ieuenctid’. Os felly, efallai mai chwedlau’n cofnodi campau ieuenctid Pryderi oedd y ceinciau gwreiddiol, ond dros amser, wrth i’r chwedlau gael eu trosglwyddo o genhedlaeth i genhedlaeth, cawsant eu cymysgu gyda chwedlau eraill o du allan i gylch gwreiddiol Pryderi. Mae’n ddamcaniaeth ddeniadol, ond efallai nad ydyw’n rhoi’r darlun cyflawn i ni.
Roedd nifer o gyfoeswyr Ifor Williams yn coleddu’r un farn ag ef, er enghraifft yr ysgolhaig a’r bardd W.J. Gruffydd. Yn ystod ei yrfa hir cyhoeddodd W.J. Gruffydd nifer o astudiaethau manwl ar y Pedair Cainc gan geisio olrhain esblygiad y chwedlau yn ôl i’w ffynonellau yn y traddodiad llafar. Daeth o hyd i fotiffau tebyg mewn chwedlau canoloesol eraill, a rhai Gwyddelig yn arbennig, oedd yn awgrymu llinach posibl i’r ceinciau ysgrifenedig. Yn fras, roedd W.J. Gruffydd yn ceisio ail-lunio mytholeg goll. Ymysg gweddillion hen adfail, chwiliodd am gynllun y deml wreiddiol. Ceisiodd ddirnad rhesymeg wreiddiol y naratif, yr hen ystyr a ddifethwyd gan ymyrraeth cenedlaethau o gyfarwyddiaid a chopïwyr anwybodus.
Erbyn ail hanner yr 20fed ganrif roedd y consensws academaidd wedi troi yn erbyn W.J. Gruffydd. Er bod llawer o’i dystiolaeth yn ddefnyddiol, gwelodd llawer o feirniaid nad oedd ei gasgliadau’n llawer gwell na rhagdybiaethau. Yng ngeiriau Brynley F. Roberts:
“Llwyddodd dadansoddiad Gruffydd i ddangos yn eglur pa ddefnyddiau sydd yn y Pedair Cainc, ond rhaid amau a fodolai’r adeiledd mawreddog cywrain a gynigiai y tu allan i’w feddwl ei hun.” Brynley F. Roberts, Rhagymadrodd, Y Mabinogion, Dafydd a Rhiannon Ifans, xviii
Yn ddiweddarach, dywedodd Sioned Davies rhywbeth tebyg
“. . . , y farn gyffredinol bellach yw bod dychymyg Gruffydd wedi mynd yn rhemp ac nad oes sail gadarn i’w ddamcaniaethau.” Sioned Davies, Crefft y Cyfarwydd, 49.
Ond dim ond un ochr i’r stori ydi hon, ac er mor andwyol oedd i’w yrfa academaidd, yn y pen draw efallai mai ei ddychymyg oedd un o’i ddoniau mwyaf. Ynghyd â bod yn ddarlithydd prifysgol, roedd Gruffydd hefyd yn fardd, ac nid rhyw rigymwr dibwys chwaith. Os tanseiliwyd ei wrthrychedd academaidd gan ei ddychymyg bywiog, rhoddodd iddo awen rymus. Gadawodd ar ei ôl rhai o gerddi gorau’r 20fed ganrif, nid y peth hawsaf yn y byd i’w gyflawni wrth ystyried pa mor niferus mae beirdd o athrylith ymysg y Cymry. Mae un o’i gerddi gorau, Y Tlawd Hwn, yn dweud llawer am ei berthynas gyda chwedloniaeth Gymreig:
Y Tlawd Hwn
Am fod rhyw anesmwythyd yn y gwynt, A sŵn hen wylo yng nghuriadau’r glaw, Ac eco’r lleddf adfydus odlau gynt Yn tiwnio drwy ei enaid yn ddi-daw, A thrymru cefnfor pell ar noson lonydd Yn traethu rhin y cenedlaethau coll, A thrydar yr afonydd Yn deffro ing y dioddefiannau oll, – Aeth hwn fel mudan i ryw rith dawelwch, a chiliodd ei gymrodyr un ac un, A’i adel yntau yn ei fawr ddirgelwch I wrando’r lleisiau dieithr wrtho’i hun.
Gwelodd hwn harddwch lle bu’i frodyr ef Yn galw melltith Duw ar aflan fyd; Gwrthododd hwn eu llwybrau hwy i nef Am atsain ansylweddol bibau hud A murmur gwenyn Arawn o winllannau Yn drwm dan wlith y mêl ar lawr y glyn, A neithdar cudd drigfannau Magwyrydd aur Caer Siddi ar y bryn. A chyn cael bedd, cadd eistedd wrth y gwleddoedd A llesmair wrando anweledig gôr Adar Rhiannon yn y perl gynteddoedd Sy’n agor ar yr hen anghofus fôr.
Clywir yma Gruffydd yn disgrifio’i berthynas gyda’i chwedloniaeth frodorol. Iddo ef mae’n dirwedd elfennol a chysegredig, cyfrin a diamser. Mae’n fyd arall sy’n cyffwrdd rhywsut â’r byd hwn. Mae’n amlwg cafodd Gruffydd ei gyfareddu gan chwedlau ei draddodiad brodorol, i’r fath raddau fel iddo bortreadu ei hun yn encilio i fyw yn y byd arall hwnnw. Drwy astudio testunau canoloesol fel rhan o’i ymchwil academaidd, cafodd ei drwytho yn y testunau hynafol hyn; rhoddwyd cyfle iddo yfed yn ddwfn o ffynhonnau’r arallfyd rhyfeddol hwnnw a etifeddodd drwy ei iaith a’i ddiwylliant. Credaf fod profiad W.J. Gruffydd yn dadlennu un o nodweddion pwysicaf ein chwedloniaeth a’n traddodiad barddol.
Os ydi barddoniaeth orau Gruffydd yn enghraifft o beth sy’n digwydd pan mae dychymyg bardd yn cael ei danio gan ei fytholeg frodorol, nid rhyfedd fod beirdd Cymraeg yr Oesoedd Canol wedi cael eu denu’n gyson at yr un deunydd. Roedd yr ysgolion barddol Cymreig yn gyfrifol am greu catalogau hirfaith o chwedlau brodorol o’r enw’r trioedd, ac mae’n debyg ei bod hi wedi bod yn ofynnol i brentisiaid barddol ddysgu nid yn unig y trioedd eu hunain, ond y chwedlau y cyfeirient atynt hefyd. Byddai nifer o feirdd yn sicr wedi mynd cam ymhellach, gan eu hadrodd neu eu darllen yn gyhoeddus. Byddai nifer o’r rheiny a drwythwyd yn eu chwedlau brodorol wedi cael eu symbylu yn yr un modd â Gruffydd. Fel sbardun creadigol, mae’n amlwg pa fath o effaith byddai’r deunydd yma’n ei gael ar fardd parod a galluog. Er na allwn ni dderbyn ei gasgliadau academaidd, mae’n eironig mai yng ngwaith creadigol W.J. Gruffydd y cawn un o’r arwyddion egluraf o effaith y chwedlau hyn.
Mae’n debyg iawn fod awdur y Pedair Cainc wedi ei fagu mewn diwylliant lle’r oedd chwedleua’n ddigwyddiad cyffredin, fel yr oedd perfformiadau dramatig o farddoniaeth a monologau ac ymddiddanion fel y gwelir yn llenyddiaeth y cyfnod. O aelwydydd tlawd y werin i neuaddau’r bendefigaeth, roedd chwedlau fel rhai’r Pedair Cainc yn cylchredeg ar hyd ac ar led y wlad. Mae’n debyg y dangoswyd parch at chwedleua fel rhan bwysig o ddiwylliant gwâr y cyfnod.
Fel y gwelir mewn traddodiadau llafar ledled y byd, mae adrodd stori, boed hynny drwy gyfrwng dawns, cân, adrodd neu ddarllen, yn gyfrwng pwysig, os nad y cyfrwng pwysicaf ar gyfer trosglwyddo gwybodaeth draddodiadol. Mae chwedlau fel rhai’r Pedair Cainc yn cyflwyno syniadau grymus drwy gyfrwng naratifau symbolaidd, gan gyflawni nod pwysicach na diddanwch syml. Er eu bod yn amlwg yn gallu cael eu defnyddio fel diddanwch, byddai chwedl draddodiadol hefyd wedi golygu gwahanol bethau i wahanol aelodau’r gynulleidfa. Byddai’r rheiny oedd wedi clywed y chwedlau droeon yn debyg o ddod i gasgliadau gwahanol na’r rheiny oedd yn dod i eistedd wrth draed y chwedleuwr am y tro cyntaf. Mae arddull gynnil y chwedlau’n gadael lle i’r dychymyg, ac yn rhoi cyfle i ddarllenydd neu wrandäwr ddehongli themâu gwahanol a chymryd safbwyntiau amrywiol.
Drwy beidio â dod i orffwys ar unrhyw un dehongliad terfynol, byddai cynulleidfa’n gallu myfyrio ar yr un symbolau a motiffau dro ar ôl tro heb eu dihysbyddu o ystyr. Byddai priodoledd o’r fath yn debyg iawn o ddiogelu poblogrwydd chwedl am gyfnod hir o amser, ac efallai ar adegau’n golygu ei bod yn cael ei gwerthfawrogi nid yn unig fel cofnod o’r ddysg frodorol ond hefyd fel ffynhonnell doethineb. Yn enwedig pan nad oes unrhyw reswm yn cael ei roi am ddigwyddiad neu weithred arbennig, byddai’n naturiol i gynulleidfa oedd yn gyfarwydd â’r chwedlau ddod at eu casgliadau eu hunain ynglŷn â’r arwyddocâd. Er enghraifft, does dim eglurhad yn y gainc gyntaf pam fod Pwyll yn troi ei gefn ar Frenhines Annwfn pob nos. Rhaid i ddarllenwyr a gwrandawyr ddod at eu casgliadau eu hunain am ymddygiad diwair yr arwr. Nid oes chwaith unrhyw gysylltiad amlwg rhwng yr helfa sy’n sbarduno taith Pwyll i Annwfn, ei ymddygiad yng ngwely’r frenhines, na lladdedigaeth Hafgan sy’n dilyn. Ond ar ôl darllen neu wrando ar y chwedl dro ar ôl tro, ar ôl cael cyfle i fyfyrio ar natur symbolaidd y naratif, byddai’n naturiol i rywun geisio clymu’r digwyddiadau hyn at ei gilydd.
Mae hyn yn awgrymu fod naill ai’r awdur ei hun neu’r traddodiad roedd yn rhan ohono’n ystyried bod ychydig o amwysedd yn beth da. Gwelir amwysedd fel rhan o arddull canu dyrys y Gogynfeirdd a cherddi rhyfeddol Llyfr Taliesin hefyd. Drwy ddenu cynulleidfa i fyfyrio ar arwyddocâd y chwedlau, drwy ein hysbrydoli i gwestiynu ystyr digwyddiadau, mae’r awdur yn ein gwahodd i ddod at ein casgliadau ni’n hunain. Un o nodweddion pwysicaf y Pedair Cainc ydi’r amwysedd hwnnw sy’n treiddio’r testun, hebddo ni fyddai’r awdur yn llwyddo i danio dychymyg ei gynulleidfa.
Byddai’n gamgymeriad tybio nad oedd cynulleidfaoedd canoloesol Cymru ddigon soffistigedig i ganfod natur symbolaidd y chwedlau hyn. Os ydi cymhlethdod barddoniaeth y cyfnod yn arwydd o unrhyw beth, mae’n amlwg roedd cynulleidfaoedd yn gwneud llawer mwy na glafoerian yn gegrwth mewn syndod twp ar ddigwyddiadau llythrennol y chwedlau. Byddai llawer mwy buddiol darllen y Pedair Cainc fel rhwydwaith o symbolau cymhleth sy’n cyflwyno mytholeg benodol yn hytrach na chasgliad llac o straeon arwynebol a gor-syml.
(this blog follows on from the previous post, and will make more sense if you read that one first)
This being March 2nd, St Non’s day, its a good day to commemorate the mother of St. David (see previous post). Non was a daughter of Cynyr Ceinfarfog, a 5th century chieftain of Dyfed who’s lands were in the south-west of the kingdom. Her mother Anna is probably commemorated in St Ann’s Head not far to the west of Milford Haven. Through her mother, Non was a grand-daughter of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, named in the Welsh triads as a talismanic protector of Britain alongside Brân of the Mabinogi. Its not surprising that she is as mythologically profound as her son, the patron saint of Wales.
Her mother, Anna or Ann, was also made a saint, (as were many of her siblings) and both the names of the mother and daughter (Non and Ann could be variants of the same name) have led some to believe they are in fact Christainised versions of Ana, otherwise known as Danu in Ireland and Dôn in Wales. In Irish tradition, Non was also a mother to other female saints who went on to become mothers of saints themselves. There is an association with the divine mother in the Christian context, never mind the more pagan association with Ceridwen I discuss in the previous post. There is another example of a similar transformation with the goddess Brigit becoming, amongst other things, the Welsh Sant Ffraid.
To run with this a little, we have a mother who through her name may be associated with a divine mother, and a father associated with a folk hero that could well be derived from the old horned god (read previous post for the background to this). Both parents seem to have taken on divine attributes for the conception of this most important of Welsh religious leaders. This is all located in Dyfed, the setting of the first branch of the Mabinogi where Pwyll takes on the form and nature of Arawn, king of Annwfn, also a variant of the old hunting god, king of the otherworld. That first branch can be interpreted as describing the appropriate attitude required of a mortal chieftain when, having taken on the form of the king of the otherworld, is given the opportunity of taking advantage of the sovereign goddess of his kingdom. Pwyll’s appropriate response ensures him the love of Rhiannon, the goddess incarnate come to seek the man that showed her respect and treated her with honour.
Opposed to this we have Sandde, St. David’s father, going on a hunt associated with magical wonders (as did Pwyll), but in Sandde’s case he does the exact opposite of Pwyll and rapes St. Non. When Non comes to give birth to Dewi the very earth is split asunder with the terrible contractions she experiences. The elements appear to be in conflict: at Dewi’s birth a great storm blows about her, she splits rock and causes a spring to burst from the ground. Her nature and condition is reflected in the natural elements of the place, underlining her role as an expression of the land’s sovereignty.
There is also her position as a liminal figure. Non gives birth where land meets sea, as is Taliesin born in a similar position, in a fish weir on Borth beach, an in-between place. Also, in Rhygyfarch’s account of Dewi’s life, when Non is pregnant with Dewi:
The second miracle which David did was when his mother went to church to hear Saint Gildas preaching. When Gildas began to preach he was not able to go on; then he said “Go out all of you from the church” said he and he a second time attempted to preach but could not and then he enquired whether there were any one in the church besides himself. “I am here” said the nun between the door and the partition. “Go thou said the saint out of the church and request all the parish to come in.” And all of them came to the place and then the saint preached clearly and loud.
Then the parish asked him “Why couldst thou not preach to us a little while ago and we were anxious to hear thee.” “Call'” said the saint, “the nun to come in whom just now I sent from the church.” “Here I am,” said Nonn. Then said Gildas “The child that is in the womb of this nun has more property and grace and dignity than I have; for God has himself given to him the privilege and supreme authority over all the saints of Wales for ever both before the day of judgment and afterwards. And therefore” said he, “there is no way for me to remain here any longer on account of the child of that nun to whom the Lord hath given supreme government over all the people of this island . . .
Notice that Non is again in a liminal place, “between the door and the partition.” This could imply her being at once in this world and also in that deeper, more powerful realm of the spirit where she is a goddess of sovereignty. Again there is that idea of two in one, of both places – the mundane and supernatural – containing the same nature, and of both figures – the mortal and the divine – containing the same person.
Cyfarchion yr ŵyl.
The 1st of March is as good a day as any to consider Dewi Sant, ‘Y Dyfrwr’, known beyond Wales as St. David, ‘The Waterman’. Apparently born around the turn of the 6th century, as a historical figure he is possibly older than Taliesin by a generation or two, and is arguably the better known. But in the mythological sphere at least, both St. David and Taliesin appear to share a similar parentage. It may be surprising initially to count St. David in the mythological category, yet all that we know of him has been passed onto us through the medium of legend and lore. Even his official biographer, Rhygyfarch, reported his life as legend in stylised, myth-laden prose. Interestingly enough, this 11th century priest of St. David’s Cathedral was such a good storyteller that notable Celtic scholars have proposed him as the possible author of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi.
Rhygyfarch’s Buchedd Dewi identifies the saint as belonging to that particular fraternity of magical infants occasionally born to the Welsh imagination, Taliesin being the other obvious example. According to Rhygyfarch, before Dewi Sant was born, his father was told by an angel to collect three things while out hunting in an area close to the river Tywi, those being a stag, a salmon and a swarm of bees (Lives of the Cambro British Saints, 403). This is comparable to the transformations of Gwion Bach through hare, salmon and bird, this time in the domain of that other great Welsh river, the Dyfi. In both accounts, the similarity of the animal triads suggests that the evoking of earth, water and air is a precursor to the incarnation of a spiritually potent soul. As is common throughout medieval European literature, the Welsh bards also referred to fundamental elements (usually fire, earth, air and water) as the material constituents of every individual.
We can go deeper again with this association between Dewi and Taliesin, as Dewi’s father in Rhygyfarch’s account was none other than Sandde, a king of Ceredigion, the northern part of which is connected with the legendary Taliesin. Sandde is mentioned in both Culhwch ac Olwen and in The Twenty Four Knights of Arthur’s Court (Appendix IV of Bromwich’s Trioedd). In both texts he is named as Sandde Bryd Angel (‘angel-face’) and in both texts twinned with Morfran son of Tegid, as in the following quote from Culhwch ac Olwen:
. . . and Morfran son of Tegid, (no man planted his weapon in him at Camlan because of his ugliness. Everyone thought he was a devil helping. He had hair on him like a stag). And Sandde Angel Face, (no man planted his spear in him at Camlan because of his beauty. Everyone thought he was an angel helping).
This Morfran, as well as being Sandde’s twin, is of course Morfran son of Ceridwen, that cauldron-bearing enchantress who was also the unexpected mother of Taliesin. In this respect Taliesin would be a half brother to Morfran son of Tegid who is the mythological twin of Sandde, Dewi’s father. Such are the deeply knotted roots of the Welsh mythological pantheon.
Both preceded by animals with an elemental significance, both born in liminal places where the land meets the sea, Dewi and Taliesin are born to mothers who also may share similar circumstances. According to Rhygyfarch’s account of Dewi Sant’s conception, after finding the triad of symbolic animals during his hunt in the Tywi region, Sandde came across a nun called Non and through blind lust raped her, the result of which was David. Although in the medieval rendering of Taliesin’s tale its the female that hunts the male, its Gwion Bach who seeds Ceridwen’s womb, suggesting his role as Taliesin’s symbolic father. Gwion Bach could in some respects be considered Morfran’s twin, the latter being cheated of the three drops of wisdom when Gwion Bach took his place before the cauldron of inspiration.
Both Non and Ceridwen are made pregnant by two males, both of which are symbolic twins of the same Morfran son of Tegid. Anne Ross has already noted that Morfran son of Tegid, horned like a devil and covered in stag hair, is an echo of the earlier horned god (Pagan Celtic Britain, 190), a British equivalent of Cernunnos. Another example of this twinning is found in the first branch of the Mabinogi, when Pwyll becomes Arawn’s twin before entering Annwfn, Arawn being another variant of the old hunter, as is Gwyn ap Nudd and various other characters from Welsh myth.
The similarities between the birth of Dewi Sant and Taliesin reveal the signs by which the Welsh may have traditionally identified their spiritual leaders, at least in symbolic or mythological terms. Its a well attested fact that the early Christian church adopted many symbols and motifs from the earlier non-Christian beliefs of Western Europe, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that the native mythology concerning the incarnation of a spiritual leader continued as the dominant tradition into the early Christian period. Perhaps in Dewi’s time such a native mythological context would have seemed a natural one to adopt, simply part of the cultural furniture that was at hand. It is fitting for the birth of Dewi Sant, chief of all British saints, to be accompanied by the same magic as that of Taliesin, chief of all bards.
I’ve put a new resources page together, including some useful websites as well as a collection of pronunciation guides I recorded for a student some time ago. I’ve also included a link to a page I put together back in 2009 on a research project I took part in looking at medieval Welsh bardic declamation.
The bardic declamation project resulted in series of videos, some of which were filmed at the Voicing the Verse conference in Bangor University. The one I’ve included bellow is a reconstructed declamation of the poem Pawb at Dewi by the prophecy poet Dafydd Llwyd, probably composed in 1485. When Henry Tudor was making his way through Wales gathering support and troops for his forthcoming battle with Richard III at Bosworth, he stopped off at Mathafarn Hall just outside of Machynlleth to visit Dafydd Llwyd, one of the better known prophecy poets of the time. Dafydd Llwyd was a trained Welsh bard that practiced the ancient art of political prophecy, a genre of bardic poetry associated with the myth of the mab darogan, the son of prophecy.
Henry Tudor, needing the support of his relations amongst the Welsh nobility, knew that a proclamation of support by the famous Dafydd Llwyd would aid his cause. According to folk tradition, having spent the evening with Dafydd and his wife, Henry asked the bard straight out “So who do you think will win the battle at Bosworth? Me or Richard?” Being caught unawares, Dafydd replied he would meditate upon the question that night and give Henry the answer next morning. Later on that evening, with the young Henry and his companions tucked up in bed, Dafydd was pacing up and down his bedchamber pulling at his beard. His wife, trying to sleep, asked him “Dafydd, what’s wrong, come to bed and let us sleep!”, to which Dafydd replied “But what shall I tell him? He could be king in a few weeks time; I must get it right.” To which his wife replied “Just tell him he’s going to win. If he does, he’ll look favourably upon you. If he looses, well it doesn’t matter because he won’t be around to complain about it. Now come to bed!” So that’s what Dafydd told him and the rest, as they say, is history.
The poem we’re performing in the video bellow was probably composed by Dafydd Llwyd to be declaimed before the Welsh troops just before going into battle at Bosworth. Its a rousing call-and-response between the bard and the troops, stirring them to action and calling for the blessings of St David for those about to go to war. Its led by Twm Morys, a well regarded chaired bard, and based on the research of Peter Greenhill (first on the left of the group) who also provided the research and interpretation for Paul Dooley‘s album of music from the ‘ap Huw’ harp manuscript.
The first part of the Welsh Mythology audio course will soon be available to download, hopefully by next week.
(extract from the forthcoming audio course, part 1 out in early January 2015)
If, as many scholars have pointed out, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are derived from an earlier mythology, its probably best to begin with the question: what exactly is a myth? In the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the first meaning given to a myth is
. . . a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena etc. . . .
What Celtic scholars are usually referring to when they talk of the mythological roots of the Four Branches is the earlier pantheon of Celtic gods and goddesses that many of the characters are derived from. But we can expand on this meaning by also adding that a myth is a way of communicating that implies a particular ideology or ethos. In that sense the term myth can be used to describe much more than just traditional tales about gods or human origins. We find myths in modern books like The Lord of the Rings, in films like Star Wars and Batman; we find them in modern art, television advertisements and magazines. In fact anything within a culture – story, film, object or person, can become the vehicle of myth.
As the famous French philosopher Roland Barthes said myth is, in its most basic form, a special type of speech.* What he meant was that a myth isn’t just a genre of stories, its a way of saying something. According to Barthes, the special trick of myth is to present an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact its no more than another limited, man-made perspective. A myth doesn’t describe the natural state of the world, but expresses the intentions of its teller, be that a storyteller, priest, artist, journalist, filmmaker, designer or politician.
In this course we’re focussing on the myths we find in traditional narratives, medieval stories that are derived from an earlier body of oral material, what could be considered quite traditional examples of myth. But we shouldn’t forget that like any word in a language, the definition of myth evolves. Whereas we often relegate myth to the same category as children’s stories, Barthes argued that myth, or the mythological way of communicating, permeates much of what we could consider to be culture, mass media, advertising and entertainment. What this modern definition has in common with the old definition is that both place belief at the heart of what myth is. But whereas the old definition of myth generally referred to gods or tales of human origins as the focus of belief, the new definition includes any cultural activity that implies an ethos or ideology as the focus of belief, be that secular or religious. If a myth is to be effective it must be believed in by its audience.
This also means that the same myth can be expressed through many different mediums. For example Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a narrative that dominated European culture for a long time. Implied in that narrative is the myth of the saviour and those he saves as well as the idea of good and evil that’s tied up in that relationship. For Christians this myth is believed to be the natural condition of the world, something they take for granted in their everyday lives. Over the millenia, this myth has been expressed through many different mediums: rituals, ceremonies, paintings, poems, drama, oral texts such as prayers and music such as hymns, symphonies and folk songs. The basic myth of the saviour is expressed in all of these many derived practices and works of art. It has become the centre around which all of these unique expressions are positioned.
A related example is how early Christian leaders explored another aspect of the myth of sin and redemption through a different narrative, that of Adam and Eve. For early Cristians such as St Augustine the story of Adam and Eve explained how humainty became sinful and why it needed a redeemer such as Jesus. Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden were seen as the origin of sin, and because Eve was the symbolic mother of all humainty, all of her descendents therefore inherited that first original sin. For many Christians the doctrine of original sin is a natural condition of the world humans are part of, an ethos that’s presented mythologically in many related works of art such as medieval paintings of Adam and Eve.
As we can see, a myth can sit at the heart of a culture for very long periods of time, becoming a reference point for morality, philosophy, spirituality and art. Another example of this is the Taliesin myth that almost certainly began as a legend about the historic Taliesin who lived in the 6th century. For over 1500 years now Welsh bards and poets have considered him one of the most famous founders of the Welsh tradition. As part of their public performances and rituals, medieval Welsh bards would adopt the dramatic persona of the perfected bard, an echo of the mythical Taliesin. Perhaps as early as the 12th century his tale was being transmitted and adapted through many lineages of the oral tradition, with variations of it migrating throughout Wales. In the legendary poems from the 14th century Book of Taliesin, in this bold and unashamedly self-agrandising poetry we see his legendary persona as the celebrated Welsh wiseman, the archetypal bard.
His fame and popularity gradually grew until by the 16th century Taliesin had evolved into a central symbol of Welsh mythology. In that century the earliest surviving copy of his tale was written down revealing Taliesin to be a symbolic figure that embodied not only the formal bardic ideology, but also beliefs about inspiration, the transmigration of the enlightened soul and the mystic knowledge derived from such an experience. Perhaps because of this native pagan mystique, at various times the figure of Taliesin was also appropriated by the orthodox Christian tradition and given a devoutly religious veneer, expressing sentiments very different to those of his earlier incarnations. In this new context Taliesin became a symbol of Christian virtue, with various prayers and religious poems composed in his name where he humbly acknowledged his sins and need for repentence. This Christian ethos was overlaid upon his more heroic ideology and pagan mystique probably in an attempt to obscure it.
Different tellers of a myth, be they renowned bards, literate monks, advertising agencies, modern druids or academics, will use popular figures such as Taliesin to further their own particular ideology or ethos. The same myth can be told or evoked in many different ways, but almost always for the same reason, to promote the myth-maker’s own position. A religious recital always affirms a particular priests power; the Taliesin persona enhances the mystique and authority of a particular bard; the academic thesis will frame the object of study so that it validates the author’s own ideology. All these are ways of indirectly implying a set of values that are to be taken for granted and are therefore mythological ways of communicating.
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*Roland Barthes, trans. Howard / Lavers, Mythologies (Hill and Wang 2013), 217