Tonight is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Wales, and is an ysbrydnos, or ‘spirit night’ when the dead walk abroad under the starry skies. Halloween is the most recent tradition associated with this night, known at one time as ‘All Hallows Eve’, but there were traditions that came before it, such as the old Celtic festivities of harvest time. As with Samhain in Ireland, and indeed for many of the early peoples of Europe in general, this was the time when the ripened fruits and crops of late summer and autumn were celebrated as the abundant wealth of the land. Alongside such celebration there would have naturally been a time of reflection, particularly as this fulfilment of life’s fruition also marks the moment when the seasons turn and all growing life prepares itself to pass through the death of winter. This is the natural time to acknowledge mortality and consider what may come after the cold season.
Its probably for this reason that tonight is also the time when Gwyn ap Nudd hunts the land, when even the living can be taken up as souls to join in his eternal hunt, urging on the magical hounds as they chase through the darkness. This happened to one Ned Pugh, a famous Welsh fiddler whose mournful refrains were heard one Nos Galan Gaeaf transforming into the bright call of a huntsman’s bugle. Having entered a cave on that particular Halloween, he wandered deep into the belly of the earth from which he was never to return alive, but was instead taken up as chief huntsman to Gwyn ap Nudd, exchanging his fiddle for a horn.
A similar account could be given of Arawn from the First Branch of the Mabinogi. One of the very few allusions to Arawn in Welsh folklore concerns a ghost that was often heard declaiming Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn, a little verse that roughly translates as ‘Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the wait for Arawn.’ Was this the soul of someone long dead still waiting to be called by Arawn to join the otherworldly hunt? We shall never know for certain, but the other similarities between Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd would lead us to think so.
One of those similarities is the connection both these figures have to the instincts of physical desire, all those visceral and carnal urges that are fired by the hunt. Arawn was the one who tempted Pwyll with his beautiful wife, and Gwyn was a dangerously jealous lover of Creiddylad according to the medieval redactors of Culhwch ac Olwen. Gwyn was also responsible for tempting Collen with illusory food when the saint visited his phantom palace atop Glastonbury Tor. All of these temptations are echoed in an English version of the Magical Huntsman, a figure of superstition that Shakespeare found so intriguing he brought him to life, quite ridiculously, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.
“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Some time a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You’ve heard of such spirit; and well you know
The superstitious idol headed old
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for the truth.”
Despite the paucity of material concerning Herne, Shakespeare’s use of him in the play chimes with much of what we already know of Herne’s Welsh cousins, all three being hunters with supernatural qualities that are associated with fairies and the dead. Not unlike the spirits and sprites of many lands it appears that Herne can cause disease amongst cattle, and his moaning and clanking of chains is not unlike the restless behaviour of the souls of the dead.
But it may also be worthwhile considering Shakespeare’s actual use of Herne in the play. To cut a rather long story short, Falstaff, a lecherous wastrel with expensive tastes, attempts to seduce two married women by employing various deceptions. After realising his unsavoury intentions, both women take their revenge by tricking him into dressing up as Herne the Hunter for a promised night of pleasure. While waiting under the Windsor Oak sporting a pair of horns, Falstaff works himself up to a froth waiting for the two wanton wives to come and ravish him. But instead of his anticipated satisfaction he is accosted by a gang of children and adults in fairy costume whom he believes to be real spirits of the otherworld come to punish his mortal trespass (he obviously went for the trick, not the treat). These cruel fairies and sprites ridicule him and eventually put him in his place, all of which Falstaff accepts with rather good grace.
Lechery and excessive desires in general are a theme that Shakespeare explores throughout the play, with Falstaff being the embodiment of aristocratic excess. In contrast to Falstaff’s debauched appetites, through various mentions and allusions, Shakespeare subtly evokes the Order of the Garter, a royal order of nobles chosen by Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own patron. This order was supposedly one of high-minded restraint and discipline, as stated in their motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, which literally translates as ‘Evil be to him who thinks evil.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor could well have been written to feature in an event held at the royal estate of Windsor attended by Queen Elizabeth and her Order of the Garter. This would explain why Falstaff’s fate in the play appears to be a realisation of the order’s motto. His bad intentions result in a bad outcome where he finds himself dressed in the guise of none other than Herne the Hunter.
There are several hints in The Merry Wives of Windsor of folk traditions concerning the unfortunate figure of the cuckold. When a man’s wife had been unfaithful, some communities would ridicule the couple and in particular the husband by placing horns on his head, thus marking him out as a cuckold, a man who shares his wife with other men. In this way the wearing of horns was associated with a lack of fidelity. But whereas these later traditions have the cuckold as a figure of derision, Shakespeare, in his own magical way, may well have been evoking a much older idea concerning the horned hunter.
There are several points of comparison between Shakespeare’s Herne and Arawn from the Mabinogi. Both figures are party to an exchange of places, Falstaff with Herne and Pwyll with Arawn, both mortals become the god and both gods are the magical huntsmen in their respective regions. Having taken on the external form of the god, both mortals come to meet the fairies of the otherworld, an experience that went better for Pwyll than it did for Falstaff. Pwyll showed restraint and self-control in the bed of Arawn’s fairy queen, where Falstaff was seen for the lecherous toff he was and punished by the ‘fairies.’ One succeeded in wearing the mantle of the otherworld, while the other didn’t. Pwyll was learning his lesson, as was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although in a markedly different way.
If this was Shakespeare’s understanding, and who could deny one of the greatest bards of the English language such an insight, this horned figure was far from the object of ridicule and derision that he appeared to be on the surface. Falstaff’s failure was to be deaf to what the Huntsman had to say about the sowing and reaping of one’s desires. Pwyll, on the other hand, was listening well, as his name suggests.
(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.
(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
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.
This audio clip is from a Symbolic Keys Skype session alongside an excerpt from the course notes. It covers an initial interpretation of the Cernunos ‘Lord of Animals’ symbol from the Gundestrup Cauldron. This older Celtic symbol is a forerunner to some of the symbols found in the Mabinogi.
When trying to interpret myths and their symbols we usually find ourselves doing so at some distance from the culture that gave birth to them. Surviving texts have very often been long separated from their original social contexts, orphans of a long dead mother tongue. With such a lack of contextual information, often our only guide is our own intuition.
When we do come across motifs and symbols we don’t understand, they don’t necessarily stay meaningless for very long. Our minds are naturally stimulated into interpreting what we see, and ascribing meaning is an instinctive human response. If we stare at it for long enough, a particular symbol will always inevitably slip into one meaningful context or another, be it a simple day dream or a full blown giant leap of understanding. That’s because each one of us carries around inside ourselves a deep pool of reflection from within which we will invariably draw a Rorschach meaning.
Clearly, a purely personal interpretation of a mythological symbol won’t always tell us much about the source culture that gave birth to it, especially if we are greatly removed from that culture. Its reasonable to look for comparators in such cases, similar symbols either from within the source culture itself, or if that’s not available to us then symbols from other similar cultures.
But even these comparisons tend to be selective readings, where we find ourselves inevitably making quite subjective assumptions that we can mistake for objective comparisons. Although great care needs to be taken when interpreting such elusive things as myths and their symbols, it is far better if we can admit to our more subjective responses before we assume them to be common facts. Only after doing so will we be able to see our subjective responses clearly enough to separate them from the actual material itself.
But after separating them out, we should neither neglect to consider these shadowy, internal responses. Interpretation of mythological and symbolic material is sometimes automatic and instinctive; that has some value if handled the right way. If we are correct in regarding at least some myths as collective works of great art, dense and stratified texts with layers of accumulated and condensed meanings, attempting to grasp them without using our own creative intellect would seem to be missing the point.
A useful approach in trying to understand a myth and its symbols is to look at the situation in which they arose. But making assumptions about a myth by re-creating its social context isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, and generally its impossible to do so without leaning somewhat on our own innate common sense regarding what a symbol can and cannot do, what it is and what it isn’t. It is a mistake to think that any old legend can simply be analyzed like an antique box, prodded and tinkered with until it finally pops open to reveal its hidden curiosities, all without any creative engagement by the researchers themselves.
If this is the best that can be done, it will be very difficult to really get to grips with the material: an overly objective, classificatory investigation is usually doomed to be quite boring. To get to grips with the material we need to let it sink in and stir up our own subjective responses. Either we approach myths and their symbols as active, engaging, stimulating cultural artifacts or we simply classify their perceived forms and leave it at that.
A mythological symbol is probably more akin to a living animal than a dead construct, yet there is a danger of assuming that symbols and myths have almost machine-like workings. That is an unfortunate and pervasive influence of some of the natural sciences: depicting the human body as a mechanical thing does not mean that everything it creates, even its ideas, are necessarily mechanical constructs. That is a very difficult position to unknowingly start from if you wish to investigate what is essentially the subjective, generationally condensed and often instinctively created myths of a whole culture of sophisticated, conscious animals.
As well as holding on to the rational, more objective techniques of study that we have refined over the millennia, its important to remember that the interpretation of myth and symbol can require more art than science: a myth, like any work of art, can only ever truly be grasped by the creative imagination. The tendency to narrow the concepts of myth and symbol to simple mechanics of meaning needs to be avoided. Just because a word has a set dictionary definition, does not imply that all vessels of meaning, including symbols, allegories and metaphors have similarly two-dimensional definitions.
Its far too simplistic to see symbol and defined meaning as two sides of the same straight-forward equation. The Saussurean concept is a useful spring-board for developing ideas about language, but symbols tend to be more complex than simple signs pointing to clearly defined signified counterparts. Language – just like myth and symbol – is not a binary code. A complex, long lived symbol will give birth to multiple meanings, and will sometimes evolve beyond its more superficial cultural boundaries. As a result, very often comparative mythology can only ever be a guideline; it may even only serve as a creative primer for a more direct, intuitive interpretation.
Taking an in-depth look at what any mythological symbol means is far more complex than the closed sign / signified duality. A myth and its embedded symbols are quite often multifaceted, containing many dimensions of meaning at the same instant, with significances from the personal to the collective and encompassing much of what lies in between. All of these dimensions need to be brought into view if we are ever to succeed in interpreting a symbol honestly, and come close to discerning some of its history and development.