To explore Jung’s theory of the unconscious I’m going to look at a very ancient symbol, that of the horned or antlered human. This symbol has been expressed by many cultures across the world – we find it in Africa, Asia and Europe in images dating from the very earliest periods of human history. If any symbol could be deemed mythological in nature, as arising from the depths of the human imagination, it is surely this one. One of the most famous examples of this symbol is found on the Gundestrup Cauldron, made during the La Tene period of Celtic art. This remarkable and ancient relic contains panels that depict many mythological scenes, figures and narratives.
The particular symbol I’m going to look at is on an inside facing panel, called interior plate A.
The central figure on this panel is of course the male figure with antlers, sitting down holding a snake in one hand and what’s known as a torc in the other. This is a very important symbol for us when we look at the First Branch of the Mabinogi in particular, and one I look at in more detail in the audio course. For the time being I’m going to focus on the figure itself. So forget about the animals surrounding him and what he’s holding in his hands and lets just look at the antlered figure as he is.
Scholars have interpreted this figure as being a representation of an old Celtic god called Cernunnos, which translates as the ‘horned one’. Its rather obvious why he’s called that, but this also gives us a clue as to what potentially conflicting elements have been harmonised in this symbolic figure. If this mythic symbol is an expression of the unconscious, according to Jung we should be able to perceive within it some conflicting influences that have been brought together in a more or less stable form.
The two potentially conflicting influences I’m referring to are of course the animal and the human. Cernunnos contains both aspects, and is in many ways a blending of the two. Its not that the Cernunnos figure itself is in anyway conflicted, as this is a balanced image containing a harmonious blend of both elements. Yet its not within our normal experience of things to expect such a form: how can a man be both human and animal at the same time? This is the paradox at the heart of this image that disturbs the normal order of things, and does so in a simple yet very eloquent way. But why would these two aspects necessarily be in conflict?
Perhaps one of the simplest interpretations is that the Cernunnos figure represents a harmonising of the civil and wild aspects of human society. Civility is often expressed in a code of conduct that has evolved across many generations, developing into customs and taboos, influencing all spheres of human interaction including religion, art and politics. Fundamental to the idea of a code of conduct is the concept of self control, that the individual is able to bend his or her will to abide by the socially proscribed forms of behaviour.
This is in contrast to wild, unbounded forms of behaviour where the individual does not abide by a code of conduct. Instead it is an essential, visceral and ultimately liberated state that has its own power, attractions and downfalls. Its the state of instinctive urges and reactions, such as experienced in love-making, hunting or fighting. It is the non-rational state of the animal, where behaviour is instinctively attuned to experience.
The Cernunnos figure, if we treat it purely as a symbol in the Jungian sense, could be interpreted as harmonising these two potentially conflicting attitudes. If the conflicting aspects of civility and wildness were brought into harmony in this symbol, we could conclude that Celtic culture of the time had evolved to embrace both aspects of human life as one experience. The great popularity of the horned god symbol could suggest that balancing these two aspects of the self was a theme in Celtic art and religion, a synthesis expressing the ideal state of the human animal.
But this hypothesis depends upon reducing two ultimately complex aspects of life into simple conflicting opposites, and although this is an attractive interpretation, it is dependent upon abstracted simplifications that are inevitably modern in tone. What we understand to be concepts of civility and wildness will inevitably differ to what was the actual lived experience of historical Celts.
Using the idea of paradox as a starting point for the interpretation of the Cernunnos symbol can throw up many perspectives, of which the wild civility paradox is but one. For example, as a Jungian symbol it could also be a harmonising of the conflicting behaviours of killing an animal and yet being in reverence of it. Its easy to see how modern scholars have interpreted the images on the Gundestrup cauldron as having religious connotations; archaeological evidence shows that Cernunnos was worshiped as a deity in Celtic and Romano-Celtic shrines all across Europe.
In view of this religious significance, we can suggest other possible conflicts that have been brought into balance in the Cernunnos symbol.
Hunting would have been an important part of life for the Celtic tribes, and as in many other parts of the world the hunt developed a spiritual significance. We find remnants of the sacred nature of the hunt in surviving European folklore, something covered in detail in the audio course. But in its basic form, this attitude to hunting clearly contains a fundamental paradox.
As we find on inside panel A of the Gundestrup cauldron, the stag, the dominant male deer, was venerated by the Celts. The depiction and positioning of the stag next to Cernunnos gives us many clues as to what was involved in this veneration.
Traditionally, its thought that you can tell a stag’s age by how many tines it has on its antlers. If we count the tines on one of Cernunnos’ antlers we find that he has 6 tines, but the stag to his left has 7, suggesting that the stag is Cernunnos’ elder. We also see that the stag appears to be speaking into Cernunnos’ ear. The elder stag is communicating something to the younger Cernunnos, perhaps giving him wisdom, special knowledge or power. This would also imply that the stag is Cernunnos’ ancestor. This sets the stag up as a figure of veneration: an ancestor, an elder who passes on his wisdom to his descendants.
In venerating Cernunnos, the Celts venerated their relationship with the sacred stag, and perhaps even saw themselves at least partly as stag people. The Celtic tribes of Europe would have had a close relationship with the deer herds that populated the region, their communities having either absorbed or evolved out of the hunter-gatherer culture of the earlier neolithic. The Cernunnos figure represents a tradition that was ancient in its own day.
Cave Painting 17,000 BC; from the Lascaux cave complex
The long relationship between human and deer would have been founded upon the hunting and killing of deer for food and materials, and as with many other such societies, the European predecessors of the Celts would have long come to appreciate their reliance upon such a valuable source of food, clothing and tools. The hunting of deer would have ensured the survival of neolithic families and clans, particularly in hard times, during long winters or when wild crops failed. In many ways the deer could have been considered a symbolic source of life for the tribes: the people lived because the deer gave them life. They were children of the stag in more ways than one.
This sets up a very complex relationship. These early tribes would have been killing that which they also venerated, setting up the initially conflicting influences that we find resolved in the Cernunnos figure. In the Jungian sense at least, Cernunnos stands as a bridge between the human and animal worlds, defining the terms of that relationship and expressing the ultimate paradox that life gives to life through the medium of death.
But once again we must be careful not to assume this theory exhausts all potential meaning. The religious significance of the Cernunnos figure could be said to transcend such a reductive theory, particularly as the Celts very likely considered him a living god as opposed to the unconscious synthesis of powerfully conflicting experiences. Our reasoning doesn’t necessarily reflect historical reality, although it can suggest new avenues of research that could be fruitful.
The Swastika Paradox
Now that we have a working understanding of how a symbol can embody a paradox while maintaining a stable appearance, lets go back and take a brief look at the swastika once again. We’ve seen how this symbol can be interpreted within different contexts, both marga and deshi, but what of the symbol itself? As a basic symbolic image, can we apply the term paradox in an attempt to interpret this very simple image?
One of the core elements of the swastika is the suggestion of rotation, of movement. The right-angle arms suggesting trailing strands drawn out from a turning centre. In that very simple form we could interpret two contrasting conditions, the rotating movement of the arms juxtaposed against the still centre, the axis of the form itself. Like all circle and cross devices the swastika contains both movement and stillness at the same time, and in that way at least can be seen to embody a paradox.
All myths and symbols arise initially in peoples imaginations, and if they are artists they will express them in creative terms more or less understandable to those around them. All of human imaginative life is inherently influenced by the unconscious, that aspect of the psyche that’s outside of our awareness, containing such things as instincts and automatic responses. Many psychologists believe the imagination acts as a medium between the conscious and unconscious mind, and as a result the art we create often gives us glimpses of our deeper, instinctive selves. Our creative urges move in response to these unseen currents of our own psychology.
As a theory* the unconscious was developed by the early psychologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, a group largely identified with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, although in truth there were many other theorists involved. Through their research, Freud, Jung and many others came to perceive that the unconscious could be understood in mythological terms, although by today some researchers argue that the mythological description of the unconscious could be a convenient projection as opposed to a description of its nature. One way in which the unconscious appears to expresses itself is through primordial human figures and story-like narratives that gravitate around fundamental human experiences such as love, power, cunning, birth, death and self-knowledge. Jung called these deep, unconscious patterns archetypes, and identified some of them, such as the mother, the trickster and the wise old man. Its difficult to say how universal these archetypes are, but its likely that within a given culture there are basic, inherited mythological structures that condition cultural expression.
For example, the tidal movements of the mass media, the memes and trends, fashions and fads can all be interpreted as following the pull of archetypal figures and narratives. To this day, just like countless generations before us, we are fascinated by heroes and villains, the trickery and intrigue of politics and power, the magic of science, religion and art, the otherness and familiarity of nature. These mythological figures and narratives can all be traced back to shared, deep mythical structures. In this way, myths are one of the sources of culture and language, the basic stuff of meaning.
Artists who have a particular sensitivity to these shared myths will often create art that has a significant resonance within their own cultures. The fashion world exemplifies this process better than most aspects of modern culture, with designers reinterpreting old styles and garments within new contexts, finding what is most relevant to the most people. It could be argued that all art and culture has developed as an inherent aspect of our evolution, with the most successful expressions of collective myth being the most enduring and at the same time the most adaptable. Those myths and symbols that manage to retain their influence as they change contexts will surely last longer than those that do not. As reflected in modern consumerism, there is great value in being able to create and express symbols endorsed by popular opinion for successive turns of the cultural wheel. This is exemplified by the modern practice of branding that strives to perpetuate the popularity of a single iconic image for an extended period of time. These modern symbols, although not explicitly set in a mythological context, inevitably draw on the mythic substratum of a culture. Even though they have replaced older mythic symbols, they still exert a similar kind of power and influence.
Its not difficult to find in the concept of an archetype a rational explanation for gods and their powers. Many scholars have explored the idea that myths, even those expressed in a medieval form such as the Four Branches, were originally tales about gods. But it must be born in mind that the modern conception of gods and supernatural agency, particularly in the atheistic cultures of the West, may very well be far removed from how these things were experienced by people in the past. The well established practice of rationalism in modern academia necessarily separates gods and divine powers out from the individual so as to reveal them as cultural fabrications; once they have been separated out as such they naturally dissolve to the touch, converted into nothing more than words and ideas. But to experience such things as core elements of one’s self, as people in the past may have, means these gods could not be separated out from the individual in any meaningful way. We must therefore bare in mind that when we reduce ancient gods and their powers to rational concepts such as the archetype, we don’t automatically discount the power of belief in the creation of culture, for that would skew our own understanding of the historic past regardless of our own position on such things.
What symbols say.
But what exactly is a symbol in this sense? Its impossible to know what the unconscious actually contains; we can’t open up the brain and peer into it as we would a loft in a house. But we can guess at its nature by paying attention to how it influences the conscious mind. By watching the ripples on the surface we can make guesses at how the currents deep bellow are moving. By studying the symbolic images that rise up into conscious awareness, Jung believed that we could interpret the movements of the unconscious. This led him to perceive that one of the basic qualities of the unconscious is its continual attempt to redress psychological balance. He said:
The unconscious, [is] the neutral region of the psyche where everything that is divided and antagonistic in consciousness flows together into groupings and configurations. These, when raised to the light of consciousness, reveal a nature that exhibits the constituents of one side as much as the other; they nevertheless belong to neither but occupy an independent middle position.
(Carl Jung, Psychological Types, p.113)
Jung saw the unconscious as the place where the psyche attempts to regulate the different influences that flow into it. It brings conflicting elements together into what he called groupings and configurations that in turn are expressed in the conscious mind as symbols: images that contain a blending of the original influences. If this theory is correct, then when such symbols are expressed consciously, we should be able to see in them traces of those initially conflicting influences, but presented in a more or less stable state. I’ll explore this idea in the next post.
*It must also be stressed that the theory of the unconscious is by no means uncontroversial: many current researchers tend to remodel the notion of non-conscious processes according to recent developments in neurological science. But this new context of understanding doesn’t change the fact that regardless of their biological correlations and influences, non-conscious phenomena can still be interpreted on both individual and communal levels in terms of mythology.
Particular regional perspectives.
In the image above you see one of the strapping young lads of the Welsh rugby team. On his shirt you see the Three Feathers which is a symbol adopted by the Welsh Rugby Union. In this context, its clearly a symbol with strong regional connotations; but this wasn’t originally a Welsh symbol, which is ironic considering its associated with so much national pride. In origin, its the royal insignia of the Prince of Wales, which is an English institution that replaced the Welsh royal lineage with the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd 1282. You can see it worn as a royalist symbol in the picture bellow, on the dress uniform of these Royal Welch Fusileers.
Regardless of the continued use of this symbol by the English establishment, it has been appropriated by the Welsh and made their own. Its not difficult to see how the Three Feathers has become a symbol of Welsh national identity, even if that symbol originally came from outside of the Welsh cultural sphere.
Symbols in modern pop culture
Just as the more regional cultures of the past could draw heavily on the meaning of symbols, so do international cultures such as that of the Anglo-American West. All successful brands are marketed through the medium of symbols, and much work has been done by advertising agencies and media corporations on studying the effect of symbols on consumerism. When symbols are removed from their original, native contexts, be they associated with transcendent or particular perspectives, and then used in mass media culture, the more transcendent perspectives are often obscured.
For example, the Egyptian ankh symbol above has been used to represent many different transcendent concepts over the ages, but here its bling jewellery style suggests the more particular concept of wealth as expressed through adornment, although it has been argued that as the engine of consumerism, capitalism displays all the trademarks of a religious cult. The bling version of the ankh suggests how a symbol can evolve (or devolve), how a symbol’s depth of field shifts depending on the perspective supplied by a particular cultural context.
In modern pop culture we find symbols in a fluid state, such as those incorporated in the hippy bracelet shown above. The crows foot circle is actually the emblem of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that arose out of the UK peace movement, and here its mixed with Rastafarian colours, blending two originally distinct cultural symbols together to make a third, expressing the teenage ‘hippie’ fad culture of the nineties, which was itself derived from the earlier hippie movement of the 60’s.
Its this repeatable, disposable nature of any symbol in modern global culture, regardless of its provenance, that has fed into to the development of popular philosophies such as Post-Modernism. Witnessing the fluid, mercurial aspect of symbols as they‘re transmitted between cultures we can appreciate their inherent instability. As they change contexts, what they mean also changes. We should bare this in mind when interpreting and giving meaning to any symbol, particularly when we draw on those originally found in cultures different to our own.
The swastika is a very interesting symbol, for some obvious and other less obvious reasons. Since the Second World War, people the world over have generally associated the swastika with Hitler and the Nazis. In that context it was clearly a symbol of fervent nationalism, the emblem of the Third Reich expressing the mythology of a pure race of ideal Arians. But it is much, much older than 20th century fascism. Bellow you can see how universal a symbol this is, used by cultures as distinct from each other as Native American, Chinese and Jewish.
The example given above of a Celtic swastika isn’t totally representative either, as there are plenty of examples of the more common four armed swastika in Celtic decorative art.
As a religious symbol the swastika is often used in Buddhist iconography, the example bellow showing the swastika on the Buddha‘s heart, symbolising love and compassion.
In related Hinduism also, the swastika is a very important religious symbol, so much so that in recent years there have been increasing calls from Hindus for the swastika to be reclaimed, taken back from the Nazis and reaffirmed as a symbol of Hindu spirituality.
When the swastika is placed over the Buddha’s heart, this ancient symbol obviously has transcendent connotations. But viewing the swastika outside of any of the above contexts, what does it mean? What is it about this very simple shape that has made it so popular? What can we say of the swastika when it is interpreted in terms of its own simple form?
The previous post outlined the transcendent and the particular as two contrasting perspectives that we can take when interpreting a mythological symbol. Yet neither is necessarily a distinct perspective at all times. Often we discover a mix of both perspectives is needed. To illustrate this point, I’m going to use both these terms to interpret some very common symbols from global culture. The first of these will be a very familiar mythological symbol to many of us, that being the Christian Cross.
The Christian Cross.
In Christian religion the cross is a symbol that expresses many transcendent concepts. To begin with its a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice; its also a symbol of his resurrection, and in that sense it can be interpreted generally as a symbol of life after death. That can also be extended to include all Christians who believe they have an opportunity to gain life after death in heaven.
But the particular cross in the image above also offers a particular perspective: as a Celtic cross, more local or regional elements are apparent. In terms of decoration, we can see that this stone cross includes Celtic knotwork carved into its different panels. Also, in terms of its basic form its a standard Christian cross with an added circle. In terms of its metaphorical depth, we have a surface image that we understand as a religious symbol, beyond which there is a mid ground containing those aspects pertaining to the Celtic nations and the peculiarities of Christian culture. We then have a deeper perspective that transcends not only the prior layers of meaning but also, apparently, the symbol’s own limits.
These interpretations are all ultimately dependent upon our own positions as observers. If we refocus on the particular perspective, we can easily see how those regional features could also in turn reveal transcendent perspectives within themselves. For example, Celtic knotwork can be more than just decoration, symbolising concepts such as the weave of time and manifest creation. The adapted form of the cross could even have significance. The circle and cross is a symbol used in many cultures across the world often to represent physical space, the circle of the metaphorical horizon dissected by the cardinal directions. It is sometimes used to symbolise how people can orientate themselves within an abstract space, an idea that is at the heart of the Welsh Eisteddfod tradition of chairing the bard. In general terms, that orientation provided by the cardinal directions focusses in on a still centre, giving this symbol a connotation of transcendence, representing that point which goes beyond manifest time and space. In terms of the historic Celts themselves, we know that the dissected circle or wheel was an important religious symbol for them, often interpreted by modern scholars as a sun symbol. The Celtic cross as we find it today can be viewed as a symbol expressing all of these perspectives of course, showing how one symbol can incorporate many different kinds of meanings.
Some care needs to be taken with value judgments when using these two terms, when taking up transcendent or particular positions, because on occasion more particular aspects can easily be viewed in terms of their own deeper, transcendent qualities.
The T’ai Chi.
Traditionally used in China to represent Taoism and Taoist arts and philosophy, it is now as ubiquitous a symbol as the Christian cross. The T’ai Chi symbol itself is the central circle of the image, the revolving black and white opposites of yin and yang, which is why this is more commonly referred to as the yin/yang symbol. The surrounding lines, known as a bagua made up of trigrams, are those found in the I Ching, and symbolise the 8 different universal conditions that arise out of the dynamic interplay of yin and yang. This pair of polar opposites is described as female and male, yielding and giving, dark and light. This is clearly a transcendent perspective, expressing universal aspects of creation. Yin and Yang and their accompanying circle of trigrams describe the basic dynamic of the manifest universe as it arises out of Wuji, or the void, thereby becoming the Way, or the Tao of Taoism.
This transcendent symbol is often found in more particular settings. For example, many martial arts organisations incorporate the T’ai Chi into their own club logo, often accompanied by other images such as crossed swords or hands or fists. Just like the Celtic knotwork on the Celtic cross, we can easily view this decoration from a particular perspective, even though its a symbol clearly expressing universal, transcendent themes.
The Buddhist Mandala.
A Buddhist mandala is traditionally used as a focus during meditation, either during its ritual creation as in sand paintings, or as an image to contemplate and impress upon the memory. Mandalas often look like temple floor plans, with four gates in an outer wall, often a black circle symbolising the illusory world of our senses. Moving in toward the centre of the temple brings us closer to buddha nature.
Meditation is ultimately a practice towards enlightenment, and a mandala can symbolise many of the elements involved in that practice. We can easily see how this is the transcendent perspective on this symbol. In terms of its particular connotations, the smaller figures and some of the colours used are specific to particular regions.
The Christian Cross, the Taoist T’ai Chi and the Buddhist Mandala are all derived from the same basic form, and that in itself is a reflection of a basic structural understanding of human experience.
This autumn I’ll be making available a Welsh Mythology home study audio course which you will be able to download from this website. In preparation I’ve put together this series of blog posts that sets out some useful approaches to interpreting mythological symbols. I’ll be posting every few weeks and please feel free to ask any questions or leave comments bellow.
In keeping with the ancient bardic practice of working in threes, this series of posts defines three aspects of a symbol; these are: depth, paradox and potential. There are many other terms and definitions that we could use, but these three can be useful as we begin to interpret a symbol.
Depth, a spatial metaphor
It can be said that a symbol has depth, but what exactly does that mean? This is a spatial metaphor describing a particular characteristic of symbols: they commonly have a surface, literal meaning that points to the deeper, symbolic meaning. For example, the image of Father Christmas is on the surface just that, an image of a merry looking, bearded man in a red costume.
But the image of Father Christmas is also a symbol expressing all those things associated with Christmas time: giving and receiving gifts; children playing; roast turkey dinners. If we separate some of these associations out we find that they in turn contain further associations. For example, the image of children playing taken alone evokes other connotations such as child-hood, happiness, family.
Here the surface image has a literal meaning that points to further, deeper meanings.
Transcendent and Particular
As well as having a depth of meaningful associations, a symbol can be described in terms of another kind of depth that, from the individual’s perspective at least, appears to transcend their cultural associations. On the one hand there are particular features that refer to the regional, ethnic or personal aspects of a symbol, and on the other hand the transcendent associations that refer to the more profound, universal ideas implied, more often than not linked to those ideas that appear to the individual to be too general to be contained by the conceptual bounds of their specific culture. Rightly or wrongly, transcendent interpretations are aplied by an individual to the whole of humanity, the universe and everything.
In other words, symbols can appear to point past themselves to meanings that are not always explicitly obvious in their surface form. Again, the basic metaphor here is that of depth. The symbol itself inhabits a foreground, beyond which lies a mid ground containing interpretations that correspond to personal and communal culture; beyond that there is a further space, where a symbol appears to point past itself to interpretations that seek to transcend those personal or regional definitions.
The legendary poems from the Book of Taliesin provide us with a brief glimpse of the less formal activities of Welsh medieval court bards. Most of these poems are dramatic pieces that were very likely performed by bards and declaimers adopting the dramatic persona of the legendary Taliesin. The differing ages of some of these and other legendary Taliesin poems found in other manuscripts suggest such a practice was popular at least during the few hundred years of the Gogynfeirdd period, if not longer. There are obviously many reasons why these poems were composed, but they can be considered at least partly as material that would have further promoted the essential mystique of the Welsh court bard. As we can see in poems such as ‘Angar Kyfundawt’, possibly composed around the early 1200s, Taliesin is portrayed as the divinely inspired, erudite and magically powerful wise-man who’s own status bolsters that of the ancient order he personifies.
It has been noted by Haycock that this particular version of the Taliesin figure was possibly intended to give some positive spin to the bardic tradition in the wake of accusations concerning its integrity. This may in part have been down to the bad press given to the bards over the years by church men, the 6th century Gildas being one of the earliest, and the 12th century Gerald of Wales who, in his Journey Through Wales, must have caused some discomfort for the bards in describing the babbling and seemingly possessed awenyddion. The use of the Taliesin persona at this time can at least be seen as part of the bardic tradition’s continuing efforts to promote its relevance at the courts of the Welsh princes. The legendary poems in the Book of Taliesin promote the fundamental ideal of the court bard, with the legendary Taliesin’s kaleidoscopic display of learning, wisdom and mystical vision stressing many of the attributes probably held to be important amongst real-life bards working in real-life situations.
So what exactly is it about the Taliesin persona that made it so appealing to bard and audience alike? We find the popularity of the Taliesin myth echoing down the centuries in the form of the Tale of Taliesin; as Ifor Williams commented, this has remained one of the most popular Welsh folk tales for over a thousand years. The reasons for the Taliesin persona’s appeal can perhaps be found in the different strands of political, social and cultural power this archetypal figure mediates. Even though the primary function of this persona was to entertain, through that entertainment it was also a vector for these other influences.
The influences I’ve noted here, the political, social and cultural, clearly overlap, and it should be remembered that in the effervescent moment of performance these strands would not be mediated separately but conveyed as a total effect implied in the whole persona. Neither should we assume that defining such a performance as court theatre means it was of less value than the formal, public ceremonies of praise and eulogy in terms of maintaining a bard’s public authority or ensuring his influence within the wider political sphere. As we find in the works of many great playwrights, apparent frivolity can as easily convey profundity and even revolution. The same should be borne in mind with the Taliesin persona.
We must also bare in mind that the personal authority and mystique of the court bard undertaking such a performance would clearly have a large impact on how it was received, particularly if we consider that some of the legendary Taliesin poems were probably composed and performed by none other than Prydydd y Moch. The real-life status of the court bard would have been essential to the success of any such ‘Taliesin’ performance, as would the audience’s acknowledgement that this was not only good fun, but also a celebration of the cherished bardic ideal. It may also have been considered the embodiment of a venerated and respected ancestor; that is, the performing bard was considered to have evoked the spirit of the historic Taliesin through his characterisation (lines 14 – 16 of ‘Teithi Edmygant’, see bellow: Our generous God / . . . / He wakens the sleeper / He merits a flow [of praise]).
In terms of the political, social and cultural power the Taliesin persona mediated, one example from the Book of Taliesin will serve to illustrate the economy with which this could have been achieved. We find all three kinds of power wielded quite subtly in the poem ‘Teithi Edmygant’ (LPBT, p.370). On the surface, as with many of these poems, the text appears to be quite ambiguous, the meaning inconsistent and apparently confused at times – although as always, a little shift in perspective on the modern reader’s part shows that the text more than likely is complete. The poem includes references to famous ancestors of royal Welsh lineages, those of North and South, and its not immediately clear why these references have been inserted into the regular flow of Taliesin’s boasting. For example, there appears to be a disjoin at the end of this sequence:
Pwy a tal y keinon?
ae Maelgwn o Von?
ae Dyfyd o Aeron?
ae Coel a’e kenawon?
ae Gwrwedw a’e veibon?
Nyt anchward y alon
o Ynyr Wystlon.
Ef kyrch kerdoryon
se syberw Seon.
Who deserves the drink of honour?
Maelgwn from Anglesey?
Or Dyfydd from Aeron?
Or Coel and his hounds?
Or Gwrweddw and his sons?
His enemies do not laugh
because of the hostages [taken by] Ynyr.
Poets make for one in (Caer) Seon with his proud [word-]sowing.
By locating the performance of this poem before a court of Welsh nobles, it may be possible to divine a reason for this apparently confused section of the poem. Marged Haycock, the poem’s editor, suggests two possible scenarios:
“The question arrises as to what occasion might suit a performance of a piece like this which has so many varied elements. One possibility is that it was performed ‘in the story’ – i.e. imagined to be happening at the court of Maelgwn at Degannwy on the occasion when he was receiving visitors. Another is that the mask or persona of Taliesin was used in a real-life setting, not just to provide entertainment, but to foster solidarity in a gathering of representatives from different kingdoms, or satellite regions. Diplomatic flattery could well have turned to the doings of fifth- and sixth century heroic worthies.” (LPBT.371)
In both contexts mentioned here by Haycock, we can assume the poem was declaimed on the occasion of worthies visiting the court, either real or imaginary. Further to that, we can also assume that as with most poetry from this period there will be an element of idealising. It was probably understood by the audience that one of the bard’s traditional roles was to judge the aristocratic community according to noble ideals, a role implicit in the Taliesin figure since the earliest praises of Cynan and Urien. If we interpret the above excerpt with reference to these possible subtexts we may be able to make some sense of the change in direction it contains.
At the beginning of the excerpt the bard playing Taliesin asks ‘who is worthy of the drink of honour?’, that is a symbolic way of asking ‘who is worthy of the dignity and honour provided by this court through its ceremonies?’ In response to this apparent challenge, a list of famous ancestors, or ideal heroes, is offered. The suggestion is that these heroes would be more than worthy of the keinon, the drink of honour. At the end of the list we then have the couplet ‘his enemies do not laugh / because Ynyr took hostages’ – Ynyr more than likely being one of the early kings of Gwent in South East Wales. Even though the couplet names him specifically, the poem could be suggesting generally that the one who is worthy of the honour of the court is one who is also fortunate enough to have enemies that were oppressed (‘his enemies do not laugh’) because of the actions of his ancestors (‘because Ynyr took hostages’). Ynyr does not need to be an actual ancestor, just a famous example of a hero who served his descendants by being a violent oppressor of his and their enemies. The taking of hostages meant that the weaker force (the English here) wished to forgo any violent conflict and instead opted to surrender hostages to the superior force (the Welsh).
What would be the implications of such a suggestion in the context of a medieval court? Even though its clearly impossible to say either way exactly what the social ceremonies of the day were, its likely drink – probably mead – had something to do with it, as suggested by the formal term keinyon, that is ‘the first drink’ or ‘the honour drink’, found in Welsh law text as well as poetry. Before listening to a performance of this particular poem, did noble members of the audience take part in a public ceremony where they received a drink from the king of the court, as a public sign of his welcome and hospitality and their loyalty? That would make these few lines quoted above quite relevant if ever performed in such a context. Metaphorically, the bard playing Taliesin would have asked – “You noblemen, you descendants of famous ancestors, you who are indebted to them for making you noble, are you worthy of this court’s ceremony?” Even though the poem doesn’t state this explicitly, by locating it in such a context it becomes a possible reading.
If we come now to the apparent turn in meaning in the last couplet, we find here another of Taliesin’s boasts, possibly inserted to give a kick of authority to the challenge implied above; only he, famous and honoured as he is, has the authority (and gall) to suggest the present nobility should compare themselves to their famous ancestors to see if they are laking in any way. The apparent change in direction here is instead read as a statement qualifying Taliesin’s authority in posing the challenge, stressing his traditional position as one who ‘judges men of heart’. Either way, whichever of these various contexts we wish to stress, the poem makes an indirect reference to the audience. The final responsibility of answering the challenge implied by Taliesin rests with them. If so, this is not simply a rhetorical device, but an invitation for the audience to engage with the heroic ideals the bardic tradition was so keen on promoting, mediated here by the legendary persona of their most entertaining spokesman.
While considering the next few lines of poetry the different meanings of the word dwfn should be borne in mind (see previous series of posts). In short, as an adjective it not only means ‘deep’ but also ‘profound’, and as a noun it can mean ‘world’. I’m also putting forward the argument that dwfn is sometimes used by Welsh medieval bards to mean something similar to Annwfn, the ‘in-world’, usually called the Welsh ‘otherworld’; but here I’m not defining it as a separate realm under the earth or across the sea but as a mythical, ‘deep’ dimension of this mundane, surface reality.
This concept of dwfn seems to be implied several times in the first section of ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ (LPBT 4), the longest poem copied in The Book of Taliesin and one of the poems that could have been composed by Llywarch ap Llywelyn, chief bard to Llywelyn the Great. Three instances of this dwfn are found between lines 16 and 33 which suggests it is a theme the author wished to introduce early on in this 266 line poem, perhaps because evoking this imaginary depth was an intentional effect of its performance.
The first example comes at the end of an initial sequence that lists Cian, Afagddu and Gwion as skilful and successful enchanter-bards. The poem then continues with the following couplets:
Gwiawn a leferyd,
gwnaei o varw vyw
ac anghyfoeth yw.
Marged Haycock gives the following translation:*[It is] Gwiawn who utters,
Haycock cautiously interprets the second line as a foretelling by Gwion of Christ’s birth or second coming, which chimes with a possible tradition of Taliesin doing the same (although only noted in an external English source; see note to line 249 in ‘Kad Godeu’, LPBT 5). But if we stress the alternative meaning of dwfn in the second line (‘adwfyn dyfyd‘), other interpretations become available to us. For example, is this second line referring to a being that is evoked by Gwion? We could as easily render the text in translation as:
[and] a deep one shall come:
he [Gwion] would bring the dead to life,
and he is poor.
Here I’m taking the prefix a- in adwfyn to mean the conjunction ‘and’, a possible reading mentioned by Haycock in her notes on this line. This gives a statement of fact that Gwion’s utterance will cause a ‘deep one’ to arise, effectively giving him life in the surface world through the magical act of bardic utterance. In some ways this is akin to re-enacting in the microcosm the Word of God in the macrocosm, emulating the original act of creation through divine inspiration. The description of Gwion as being poor could also work, he being portrayed as a humble smith’s son in some versions of the later Hanes Taliesin, but it also implies that he is above caring for the riches of the world, asceticism being a mark of his spiritual integrity.
The obvious question that follows is who is this ‘deep one’ brought into being by Gwion? An explanation may be found in the other examples of dwfn in this section of the poem. After a description of Afagddu and Gwion working at their fireless cauldrons (how they work their magic of creation), we have the following couplet:
Which Haycock translates as:
Passionately will song be brought forth
by the profound speaker.
Again, we could as easily say:
Passionately will song be brought forth
by the deep, profound speaker.
I would say both meanings, deep and profound, are implied here. Here we have another allusion to the enchanted nature of bardic utterance and the depth from which it arises. Regardless, taken with the first quoted example above, what is suggested is that Gwion is either evoking the presence or prophesying the coming of a ‘deep one’. Whichever meaning we wish to stress, this also chimes with the third instance of dwfn found 9 lines later. Although there is a scribal error here, Haycock’s emendation gives:
dybydaf a gwawt
dwfyn dyfu ygnawt
. . . which she translates as:
I’ll come with a song
[of] a profound one who became flesh.
Following Haycock’s interpretation, here we have the Taliesin persona repeating Gwion’s prophecy. If we can identify the former as the reincarnation of the later, we can assume they are different iterations of the same being, so it would make sense if both are making the same prophecy. But the fact of Gwion’s reincarnation as Taliesin, as attested to in the Hanes and suggested elsewhere in The Book of Taliesin, could give another parallel meaning to this couplet, that is Taliesin is the ‘one who became flesh’, just as he was born anew from Ceridwen’s womb or enchanted from flowers by Math and Gwydion (see below).
This interpretation is supported if we exercise an editor’s prerogative by placing a comma at the end of the first line of the couplet, giving:
I’ll come with a song,
[I’m] a deep one who became flesh.
Either way, this second line could very well be referring to Taliesin himself. If so, the main focus of this opening section is his own enchanted provenance, not so dissimilar to his fabricated condition noted elsewhere in The Book of Taliesin. He states clearly in ‘Kat Godeu’ – ‘the wisdom of sages fashioned me’ (LPBT, p. 183), a condition metaphorically implied when he describes how Math and Gwydion fashion him from flowers, as they did Blodeuwedd (LPBT, p. 181-2). In this particular instance we can infer that his present incarnation is created by his earlier incarnation, not an illogical sequence of events.
Taliesin therefore is the deep one who will become flesh; as an imaginary being he is brought to life – made real – by the act of bardic declamation. Is this a reference to the adoption of a dramatic persona by the performing bard? Does the mythical Taliesin exist as a figment in the imaginary depths until he ‘becomes flesh’ via the creative act of performance? This could imply a belief in either the transmission of ancestral wisdom and authority via the embodiment of an inherited, archetypal bardic persona, or even a degree of what the medieval Church may have considered ‘possession’.
On a more general point, the multiplicity of interpretations discussed here may be an intentional feature of the poem and a result of the skilful playfulness of the poet, as opposed to being a result of our inability to divine the ‘proper’ meaning. The implied references to Christ as noted by Haycock may well run in parallel to my own interpretation. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in terms of the miraculous nature of the subject. But more importantly the text is symbolic and imaginative, appearing to subtly subvert attempts to pin it down to any overly fixed literal sense. In effect it invites us to play with its meaning.
Here is a revised translation of this section (lines 15-35) based on Marged Haycock’s but with my alternative interpretation:
[and a] profound one will come;
he [Gwiawn] would bring the dead to life,
and he is poor.
They [Afagddu and Gwiawn] would make their cauldrons
that were boiling without fire;
they would work their materials
for ever and ever.
Passionately will song be brought fourth
by the deep, profound speaker.
Hostile is the confederacy [of opposing bards];
what is its custom?
[Since] such a great amount of the nation’s poetry
was on your tongues
why don’t you declaim a declamation,
a flow above the shining drink?
When everyone’s separated out
I’ll come with a song,
[I’m] a deep one who became flesh:
there has come a conqueror,
one of the three judges in readiness.
* Marged Haycock ed., Legendary Poems from The Book of Taliesin (2007)
I’m taking part in a TV documentary that will air on BBC2 this Sunday evening (see bellow). They’ve got me reciting Taliesin poetry in a pub. They touch on the historic Taliesin’s most important patron, Urien of Rheged and what the Welsh consider to be our ‘Old North’. Could be interesting . . .