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Alternative interpretations of ‘dwfn’ in Gogynfeirdd poetry, part 2

Sometimes in Gogynfeirdd poetry the word dwfn is used to describe awen, the sacred breath of bardic inspiration; when dwfn is used as an adjective in this way modern editors usually give it the meaning ‘profound’. But as in the previous post, it mustn’t be forgotten that dwfn also means ‘deep’. For example, in a poem by Cynddelw we find the following line:

Yn ail awen ddofn o ddwfn gofiain, . . .

. . . which modern editors interpret as meaning

[The patron] is a reflection of the profound awen of profound thoughts, . . .

. . . but could quite as easily be interpreted as meaning

[The patron] is a reflection of the deep awen of deep thoughts, . . .

So what’s the real difference between these two interpretations?

First of all we need to unpack the line a little. As with most heroic poetry, the Gogynfeirdd almost always depicted their patrons as the perfect, ideal hero; in fact any personal characteristics were largely ignored in favour of more general, heroic ones. The patron became a vehicle for the heroic ideals that the bardic tradition wished to promote.

This means that the awen of the Gogynfeirdd was that of heroic poetry – a worthy patron inspired them to express the heroic ideals that were so central to their way of life. It was this particular awen that the patron was reflecting in this instance.

But what does ‘deep’ mean in this context? Why is the patron a reflection of deep awen? There is the surface meaning of ‘profound’, but once again here we have a suggestion of this otherworldly dwfn, a hint of Annwfn. One thing that we can assume from the above quote is that Cynddelw believed this deeper dimension of inspiration was the space in which the perfect heroic ideal was found, a concept not a million miles away from a symbolic interpretation of the first branch of the Mabinogi.

In the third part of the line (‘. . . of deep thoughts’) there is a clear association made between this otherworldly dwfn and ‘deep’ thoughts. Its easy to associate deep inspiration with deep thinking and again ‘profound’ fits nicely as a surface meaning. But carrying through the subtext of this otherworldly dwfn, Cynddelw may also be suggesting this deeper dimension to be at least partly synonymous with the mind.

All this can either be taken as purely metaphorical or as a suggestion of the kind of metaphysical framework Cynddelw worked in as a chief bard. In another of his poems, Cynddelw states that his song, his awen, comes from this deep place:

. . . canwyf o ddwfn, o ddofn awen, . . .

. . . I sing from the depth, from the deep awen, . . .

Again, what is being stressed here is the accessibility of this deep space. Annwfn may not be so otherworldly as to be inaccessible. Awen connects this surface realm with the ideal depths of reality, providing the bard not only with a source of inspiration but, in the context of praise singing, also a source of wisdom and judgment.

Cynddelw’s multilayered use of dwfn, not only as an adjective and a noun but also as a concept, fits in with what we already know about the Welsh bardic tradition’s conception of divine inspiration. Cynddelw suggests that Annwfn and the synonymous dwfn offers a deepening of this world’s perspectives, and that awen arises from this place carrying with it the impressions of ideal forms.

In the next few posts I’ll examine the work of other Gogynfeirdd poets to further expand our understanding of what they meant by Annwfn, dwfn and awen.

Alternative interpretations of ‘dwfn’ in Gogynfeirdd poetry, part 1

In the Beirdd y Tywysogion series, the editors have interpreted a line by Cynddelw in the following way:

In Annwfn, in the world, in the sea – . . .

This is a reasonable interpretation, but there are alternatives that could suggest a lot more to us about what court bards such as Cynddelw thought about Annwfn, the traditional Welsh otherworld. The actual line in the original Welsh reads . . .

Yn Annwfn, yn nwfn, yn nyfnder – . . .

If we begin with the second part of the line, the word dwfn (mutated here to ‘yn nwfn’) means ‘world’, the meaning given in the first quoted line above; but dwfn also meant ‘deep’ in middle Welsh. This is important and not to be overlooked; as we shall see there are many uses of dwfn in this sense, some of which relate directly to the concept of Annwfn and awen (see further posts on this). The second element in Annwfn is of course this very same dwfn, and rhyming both words was no accident – a master craftsman such as Cynddelw would have been very aware of the many connotations he was putting into play with such ornamentation.

In the third part of the line, dyfnder also means something similar to dwfn, literally ‘depth’, and is often used as a name for the depths of the sea. Again, Cynddelw would have understood the connection between Annwfn, dwfn and dyfnder, and as well as creating a cynghanedd sain, these three words also chime in meaning, conveying the sense of a deep, profound space. Annwfn in later folk lore is understood as being under the earth, a metaphorical description that retained a hint of this original meaning.

If we reinterpret the line stressing the other meanings implied it gives a whole new reading to this section of Cynddelw’s poem:

Hydr yd gerdd fy ngherdd yng nghyflawnder
I gyflawn foli rhi rhwy dirper,
Yn urddiant foliant fal yd glywer,
Yn awen barawd awdl burwawd bêr;
Yn Annwfn, yn nwfn, yn nyfnder – yd farn,
Nid beirdd a’i dadfarn, bardd a’i dadfer.

Powerfully does my song go forth in completeness
To praise fully the king that deserves it,
In renowned praise full of dignity,
With ready awen in an ode of fair, pure poetry;
In Annwfn, in the deep, in the depth, it judges,
Other bards do not impoverish it, it is this bard that declaims it!

Cynddelw’s song judges the patron, and does so in Annwfn, which, according to my alternative reading is ‘the deep’, and ‘the depth’. This supports the idea that Annwfn is a deep place, and gives us another piece of information about Cynddelw’s conception of Annwfn, that being it is from this deep place that the bard’s judgment arises. This lawful or ethical aspect of Annwfn is also seen in the first part of the first branch of the Mabinogi, and Cynddelw is very likely referring to the same idea here. With this association in place, we can now expand on some of the other occurrences of dwfn in Gogynfeirdd poetry.

Academia, Iolo Morgannwg and interpreting Welsh texts.

Over the last century more accurate editions of historic Welsh poetry and prose have become available, largely due to the growth of Welsh language university departments, sometimes with whole teams of post-graduate editors and researchers devoted to revealing and understanding medieval texts. Even greats such as Dafydd ap Gwilym have found themselves caught up in the flurry of new editions repackaging masterpieces of medieval European literature for new audiences. Only a hundred years ago – a relatively short period in the history of some of our older texts – many of the Welsh classics were only available to the wider Welsh speaking public in confused English translations. In comparison we are living in a time of plenty when it comes to the availability of editions of our native Welsh literature.

But we have so much text available to us now, and so much still being edited and re-edited, I believe an aspect of critical interpretation has been somewhat left behind, specifically assessing the Celtic and pre-Celtic roots of medieval Welsh literature. This is for many reasons, the main one perhaps being that there is more money in turning out hard copies of texts than there is in talking about them. The general tendency has been to view interpretation as a byproduct of editing, not the primary focus. Cash strapped university departments will always have to make hard choices from within shrinking budgets, and over time the financial conditioning of research results in the development of attitudes and skills that leaves less financially profitable academic work neglected.

Coupled with that is the reticence about making any reference to anything too mystical sounding or druidic. Druidic in this sense is a catchall term that refers to several strands of culture, some historic, some pertaining to the present. Historically, there have been occasions when the Welsh have gotten themselves a bit drunk on their own myth-making; a dangerous habit, but we have been indulging in it for millennia so it comes quite easily to us. On one particular occasion, towards the end of the second half of the 18th century, the debauched mead-feast was lead by the then master of ceremonies, Iolo Morgannwg (who had a habit of mixing his myth-making with opiates). Iolo was in fact a talented scholar and poet, but he found his real calling was to repackage the mythic past of the Welsh nation. This re-dreaming of the past enabled him to develop and fabricate tenuous links between the ancient British druids and the Welsh bards of his present day, the consequence of which was the forming of a bardic guild dressed up as a mystery school. In his wake came many druid enthusiasts primed by antiquarianism, desperate for any justification to get up in their splendid ceremonial outfits.

Iolo provided them with that justification, thereby giving us the modern druid order of Wales, or Gorsedd y Beirdd, and their outfits were so fetching that the English got a bit jealous and appropriated the look for their own version of neo-druidry, the heirs of which we see today in venerable organisations such as OBOD who have succeeded in turning the older English antiquarianism into a large and popular modern-day spiritual movement. But for all this poking fun at poor old Iolo, at the end of the day he was a great visionary and a truly inspired nationalist. His ceremonial interpretation of his native bardic arts has given the Welsh durable vessels that seem to sustain our public culture from decade to decade: proof enough of his genius, no matter how peculiarly it was expressed.

But the snake-oil peddling fakery of some of his antics has left latter scholars with a degree of reticence when it comes to actually following through on his main claim, that being that there is an historic connection between medieval bardic culture and the earlier druidic culture that preceded it. In other words, for all the pomp and ceremony that the Gorsedd provides, not many people involved in modern Welsh academia can actually take the idea of druidry seriously, at least in public, never mind speculating about its historic position on philosophical and metaphysical matters and how they evolved in the professional bardic orders of medieval Wales.

If we consider that much of the fabricated evidence that Iolo presented was swallowed hook, line and sinker by many renowned scholars for almost a century, its not difficult to understand the over-cautious attitude that modern Welsh academics tend to take in view of the foolish mistakes made by some of their predecessors. New professors usually get the job when they have proven they can appear relevant while not being too controversial within their fields (a safe pair of hands). Putting on the donkey ears of druidry doesn’t make for an appealing professorial candidate. Further to that, no one wants to earn a reputation that could haunt them well beyond the end of their careers. A debunked theory doesn’t make for a great epitaph to ones life work. With Iolo clanking his chains in the background, Welsh academics understand better than most the power of memory and the durable nature of the written word.

This is not to say that there is no discussion at all of the historic link between druids and later bards, but generally it is editors themselves that try to provide the reader with a little clarity, not only offering explanations for archaic words and common sense corrections for miss-copied or damaged text, but providing contextual information to help elucidate meaning. But what is needed is a much wider, much more eclectic comparative study the takes the genuinely interesting medieval Welsh material and places it in an objective, useable anthropological context. The material is all there, waiting in the abundance of new editions sitting on the library shelves, we only need the right perspective to see it for what it is.

Bedd Taliesin (Taliesin’s Grave) part 3

So what of the name ‘Cae’r Arglwyddes’, ‘The Lady’s Field’? After some digging around in the National Library and County Archive, I still haven’t been able to discover who this Lady is. There is no record of a church here so it’s unlikely to be St Mary. It could refer to a now forgotten noble woman, but usually an owners personal name is preserved in place names. All became clear when I had a conversation with an old lady who’s father had been born at Cae’r Arglwyddes, and according to her the name of the farm refers to a ‘lady of the lake’ folktale about the small lake up on Moel-y-llyn. Such tales are common throughout Wales, and feature an otherworldly woman who comes out of the lake, usually followed by an abundance of farm animals. These otherworldly women are more than likely late versions of earlier water deities, fairy women with magical powers. Is there an otherworldly ‘Lady’ associated with Taliesin and the rights of the dead?

If the ancient processional way of Y Sarn Ddu between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin corresponds in some way with the mythical bard’s life-journey, this could offer an explanation as to who this Lady is. In the tale, Ceridwen stands between Gwion and Taliesin, and directly between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin is Cae’r Arglwyddes. Is this where Ceridwen chases the magically enlightened Gwion Bach? Was it here that she swallowed him in the guise of a large black hen and then gave birth to him as the beautiful infant Taliesin? Is this the place of his symbolic death and rebirth? If so, was it the River Cletwr that she set him adrift upon, carrying him down through the vulva-like ravines of Gwar-y-Cwm waterfalls before spilling into the Dyfi? It would make sense if he was then washed up on Borth beach.

Bedd Taliesin (Taliesin’s Grave) part 2

Not all of the ancient monuments in the Cletwr Valley have been marked on the OS map – the valley itself and the surrounding landscape is littered with what were probably covered mounds at one time, many of which are in fields around the old farm called Cae’r Arglwyddes, which means ‘The Lady’s Field’. Heading east up the Sarn Ddu (the ‘Black Road’ discussed in the previous post) from Bedd Taliesin there can be seen many suspicious piles of stones on either side of the road, including many fallen standing stones, several of which clearly mark the old way. Was Cae’r Arglwyddes once the sight of a complex of intact burial mounds through which the Sarn Ddu passed as a processional road?

Pillaged stones are clearly seen supporting the southern bank of the road, and there is a line of large boulders further along just before Cae’r Arglwyddes farm house. All of the stone piles in the valley contain large quartz stones, just like the ones that cap the cairn that overlooks the Black Road from the top of Moel-y-Llyn and that kerb the cairns over on Foel Goch on the northern side of the valley.

If the Cletwr Valley once contained many obvious burial mounds, it could give one explanation to what the name ‘Y Sarn Ddu’ is referring to. It’s easy to see how black has an almost universal association with death, especially in Europe, and probably has done so for a very long time. Y Sarn Ddu may preserve the connotation of a Death Road or a Road of the Dead. The fact that this name still survives suggests that its processional use, or at least its association with burial and death, may have continued into the early medieval period.

Studying Myths Subjectively

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 resolve into one meaning or another. 

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. It’s reasonable to look for comparisons in such cases, similar symbols either from within the source culture itself, or if that’s not available to us then symbols from a close cousin or other similar culture. I believe that this, in reality, is the only way in which interpretation can claim some objectivity.

But even so, no matter how carefully we may arrange our comparisons, they are still selective readings that are only minimally objective. In using comparison as a guideline for interpretation, there is still a need to identify our subjective responses before reverse-engineering an ‘objective’ rationale for them. Only after doing so will we be able to see our responses clearly enough to distinguish them from the actual material itself.

But after separating them out, we should neither neglect to consider these instinctive insights. There is nothing wrong with creative responses to myth and symbol; some of the world’s greatest art is a result of such engagement. If we are correct in regarding at least some myths as drawing on the imaginal life of a people, approaching them without any regard for our own imaginal lives would seem to be missing the point.

A useful approach in trying to understand a myth is to look at the situation in which it arose. But making assumptions about a myth by re-creating its social context isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, and generally impossible to do so without leaning somewhat on our own learnt ideas about what a myth can and cannot do. It is a mistake to think that any old story 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 researcher.

An overly reductive, classificatory investigation is doomed to miss the woods for the trees. Either we approach myths and their symbols as the active, engaging and stimulating complexes of meaning that they were to their respective societies, or we simply classify their perceived forms and move on. Unfortunately, such treatments will inevitably tell us more about how we tend to classify things than reveal the imaginal potential of a myth.

Myths are probably more akin to a living animals than a dead constructs, yet there is a danger of assuming that they 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 from which to investigate the condensed dreaming of a whole culture. No myth ever evolved as a result of a storyteller thinking rationally about functions and utilities, so what makes us assume that defining those functions and utilities is the primary way of studying myth?

A myth and its embedded symbols contain multiple dimensions of meaning all at the same time, ranging from the instinctive and personal all the way through to the collective, historical and political; pretending to be able to fully separate any of those dimensions out reduces myth to an explanation that serves no purpose beyond satisfying an arbitrary standard of objectivity. All of the dimensions of myth need to be brought into view if we are ever to succeed in offering honest interpretations.